Hypothesis was excited to bring Butch Porter on to our team as Vice President of Partnerships earlier this year and we’ve been wanting to take the time to introduce him to our community. I sat down with Butch recently and got him talking about why he joined Hypothesis and his deep experience working for more than 20 years at the intersection of education, publishing, and scholarly communication.
Butch has worked for large educational companies as well as founding, growing, and successfully selling companies that utilize open-source software in a SaaS environment. Butch has spent a great deal of his career working with digitized content both in a personalized learning platform as well as in a vast network of learning object repositories. Butch has testified before state legislatures on the benefits of digitized content and has been an advocate his entire career for the implementation of learning tools that improve student success while driving down the cost of materials. Butch has a passion for education as his dad was a high school principal and his mom a school nurse. You can learn more about Butch in our conversation below and on his LinkedIn page, and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Nate Angell]: You’ve done many things. What drew you to working with Hypothesis?
[Butch Porter]: As quality content becomes digitized, we must do all we can to make sure that this content is read, understood, and remembered. The tools that Hypothesis is building support these three key goals for learning. When doing my research prior to joining the team I discovered a top-notch school in North Carolina that referenced the importance of annotation in their learning center: “Time spent annotating isn’t time wasted — its time invested.” I believe this to be true. Annotation has already proven to be extremely valuable not only in education, but also in scholarly publishing and in news media fact-checking efforts. I want to provide students, faculty and administrators with tools that will enable annotation at scale so all students can engage and improve. At the same time, I am committed to the openness of Hypothesis. Improving learning while keeping tools very affordable — that’s why I joined Hypothesis. To do something very special at scale.
You’ve been responsible for some remarkable success for educational offerings. How did you do it?
Listening to and understanding what others are trying to accomplish has always been a key strength in my success. I learned very early in my career that we all have goals we are trying to accomplish. Those might be the goals of the learner, the faculty member or the administrator, but everyone has goals that they believe will improve education. If you focus on helping others, then you too can be successful. Also, I have been surrounded by super-talented people every step of the way and that has been a major factor in my success. I have had the privilege to work with super bright, caring, hard working individuals who have come together as great teams. Now again at Hypothesis, I’m surrounded by another amazing team that I’m learning from every day.
Among other things, you’ve worked to build adoption for platforms like Blackboard and Sakai. How do you see Hypothesis fitting in to the learning management system (LMS) world?
I see Hypothesis as native inside of the LMS. Every student, in every class, should have the opportunity to annotate content, no matter if that content is an OER resource, a medical image, a video, or a professionally published piece of content from a publisher. My goal is to make Hypothesis a part of the learning ecosystem in every facet of the student experience. I mean, when do we want students to stop taking notes? To stop sharing ideas? To stop responding to faculty? To stop understanding and challenging? Of course, the answer is “never”. Hypothesis, native inside of every LMS, will enable students to engage with their reading everywhere.
You built your own SaaS company. What did you learn doing it that you’ll bring to Hypothesis?
I think it’s important to note that it was a SaaS company that utilized open-source software. One of the main lessons I learned was that open-source software, by itself, can fulfill many of our needs, but it can’t fulfill all of them. That’s where my original company, Optimized Learning, made its mark. We built enterprise-level services such as five 9s hosting, faculty training, tier 1 support, and many other services that faculty and administrators were demanding while utilizing the openness of the software. By combining openness with a state-of-the-art data center, we enabled schools to have flexibility, to save money, and also to benefit from both faster software feature development and the ability to quickly scale required networking infrastructure up or down. Several schools, especially in the Carolinas where my company was headquartered, embraced open-source software, supported by high-quality vendors, that they still use today at significant scale. I will bring all that we learned then plus a great deal of what I have learned since to Hypothesis.
We’re now recording more than a million Hypothesis annotations per quarter. What kind of growth would you like to see and how will we get there?
The number of annotations per quarter is impressive, but I will be focused on the number of users and the number of active classes. The reason why the number of annotations per quarter is so high, and growing so rapidly, is because once people use Hypothesis, they literally take it with them everywhere. They annotate and collaborate on just about everything. I spoke to one faculty member from Utah who has created Hypothesis groups for his classroom — OK — a common use case. He then told me he created a Hypothesis group for his family to plan a reunion, he then created a group for his book club, and he even created a group for his Sunday school class. He had taken his classroom experience and literally made it part of every facet of his daily life. This is what so many people are doing with Hypothesis. So, my goal will be to drive awareness and the number of active users and the number of annotations will continue to expand rapidly. As for a growth rate and how we get there, we are currently experiencing a 200% increase in YOY usage and I believe we can accelerate even faster. The LMS question you posed earlier was a good one. This growth rate is being driven by the Hypothesis team and the organic growth of Hypothesis across campuses which is all fantastic. That said, once we are native inside an LMS, once we are an integral part of professionally-published content, and by continuing our work with OER resource organizations and OPM companies, this rate will accelerate significantly. We are busy internally scaling out the team so that we are ready.
You’ve worked with open-source projects before, like Sakai. Why do you think open is important for Hypothesis?
The world needs both open source and open standards. I am very proud of the work I did with both Sakai and Moodle. Open source means that software can be developed by a wider community. It enables open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, and meritocracy. I mean, the internet was built primarily with the Linux operating system and Apache web server application — both open source tools. Most of the civilized world benefits from the internet. The reason I add open standards is because we also need to consider the interoperability of our software. This goes a step further to remove vendor-imposed boundaries that can cause limitations. I am very proud of the work Hypothesis has done around both open-source software and leading the development of the W3C web annotation standards. This is the type of innovative leadership that I am excited to be a part of and will ensure that continues.
What do you most want to grow into that you think working with annotation at Hypothesis will enable?
What I want to learn and grow into is what can we do as an organization to enable students and faculty to engage in learning, collaborating and thinking critically for their entire lives. The world is full of rich content and so much of it is available today in a digitized format via the web. Think of how great it would be if we all shared ideas, collaborated on all sorts of content from ancient texts, great works of literature, scholarly publications and even today’s breaking news stories. The dialogue we would create could have a very positive impact on society; we already know it can have a significant impact on the individual. By utilizing tools developed by Hypothesis, we can teach people a skill that they can use their entire life. Maybe they won’t fall in love with reading like I did, but they can at least develop skills that can significantly impact the rest of their lives — for the better.
Who was your favorite teacher? Why?
This is a very difficult question because I had so many great teachers along the way. My dad was a high school principal and my mom was a school nurse, so I have been around education my entire life. If I had to say my favorite teacher, I would say Mr. Hank Wolf at Roanoke College. Mr. Wolf taught Business Law. We only met once a week, so we had to prepare a great deal of material before every class. The readings were tough, but I found the material very interesting. Because we had to come to class prepared, we were able to have very lively discussions about the material we were covering. Mr. Wolf was a business attorney for the Norfolk and Southern Railroad at the time and he had a wealth of real-life business law experience. He made the class come alive and, as I said, I really enjoyed the material so that made it even more interesting. To this day, Mr. Wolf’s Business Law class is still my favorite class.
What’s something people may not know about you that you wish they did?
I would like for people to know that I take more joy in helping others succeed than I take in succeeding myself. I think this is one reason why I enjoy management and training so much. I have been fortunate enough to hire some great people, help them develop in their careers, and many are now in significant positions of leadership in the education space. Weather it’s my work with the Boys and Girls Club, sitting on various charitable boards, managing a team of talented people, or even teaching my daughter to play golf and drive a car, helping others be successful is what brings me true satisfaction. The universe is so vast, and we are all so small, however, I believe if you can help someone else accomplish their goals then maybe you had a positive impact that day. I find that rewarding.
Hypothesis is a mission-driven organization dedicated to the development and spread of open, standards-based annotation technologies and practices that enable anyone to annotate anywhere on the web. Our mission is to help people reason more effectively together through a shared, collaborative discussion layer over all knowledge. Hypothesis is based in San Francisco, CA, USA, with a worldwide team.
Hypothesis develops its open-source annotation software in collaboration with many contributors. We thank our funders, partners, and entire community for working with us to advance standards-based, interoperable annotation for all.