I just learned that my colleague and friend Brent Lambert has passed on. As I’m reflecting on our relationship this morning, I want to share a few thoughts and feelings and stories.
I met Brent when he entered the PhD program at USU. He came to us with a Masters degree (in CS), but no Bachelors. That always cracked me up about him – he was quirky like that. He loved making software and was extremely firm in his commitment to openness (and the other principles that guided his life). He had a passion for building things that would make the world a better place. Here’s an old blog post where I include his thinking on learning objects in a brief review of related thinking by folks like Wayne Hodgins, Stephen Downes, and Andy Gibbons.
My relationship with Brent was the beginning of many good things in my life. We worked together on a number of crazy projects that were each ideas WAY ahead of their time. There wasn’t an insanity I could propose that Brent couldn’t code. In 2003 we launched our first collaboration, an open source system for post-publication peer reviewed journals we called Pitch.
That same year we began work on two bigger projects. Open Learning Support was open source, online discussion software designed to allow learning communities to self-form, self-organize, and self-manage. This software was integrated with MIT OCW and Connexions for a time, providing the places for people to ask and answer questions about what they were learning.
And then there was eduCommons. This was definitely the most impactful work we did together, and also started in 2003. eduCommons is an OpenCourseWare Management System – server software that colleges and universities use to run their OCW publishing initiatives. This work we timed just about right. eduCommons came into its own about the same time the OCW Consortium did, and since MIT never did open source the platform they use to manage their OCW initiative, it was the best game in town for a number of years if you wanted to run and manage your own OCW. (Brent would have persuaded you that, even if MIT had opened their platform, eduCommons was still better.) By our count in 2007 or 2008, a full 1/3 of all OCWs in the world were running on eduCommons. Many still do. It’s quite a legacy for Brent, because while many of us worked on eduCommons, it was really his baby.
Brent was a fellow traveler. I remember very early on – maybe in 2004 – we were tapped by the Hewlett Foundation to head down to Rice to do a technical review of an early version of the Connexions platform. As always, Brent stuffed everything he needed for the trip into a single grey backpack. We flew down the evening before the review, headed to the hotel room, and began messing around with the platform. After some initial frustrations and minor injury to our geek pride, we vowed we would not sleep until we figured out how to author a module and then fork it. It ended up taking about 90 minutes.
We went from being a pair of troublemakers, to being a small team, like with Pitch (which we worked on with Corrine Ellsworth), to what we called the OSLO Group (Open, Sustainable Learning Opportunities Group), to COSL (the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning). Brent was still leading the eduCommons team inside COSL when I left USU in 2008.
I broke a lot of new ground with Brent. I wrote my very first Python with him. I joined my first SourceForge project with him. I was always asking him one question or another about why my code wouldn’t work, and he would always patiently correct and teach me.
Brent and his family moved down to Utah Valley a few years back. We never really managed to get together with all the things going on in the lives of two families with lots of kids. I always had it in the back of my mind that we should get together “soon,” as I expect he did. Now it will be a while until I’ll see him again, which makes me sad. But it’s great to think that Brent is on the other side, working just as energetically there to make it a better place.
I shed a few happy tears remembering these good old days with Brent. I’m sure I’ll shed more next time I’m stuck writing some python, go to ask him about it, and remember that he’s temporarily out of reach. But I shed some bitter ones, too, thinking about Michelle and the kids who will miss him so much more than I will. My heart and my prayers go out to them, together with my reassurance that, despite it being a tragically, annoyingly long time, they will absolutely be together with him again one day.
Here’s to you, Brent. Thanks for everything. See you on the other side.