There was a conference taking place today, hosted by Pearson, and focused on Social Media use in Education. In the spirit of full disclosure, I need admit that I was invited to this conference, but couldn’t go due to a previous engagement presenting with Aaron Puley on Raising Responsible Digital Citizens at the Ontario Federation of Home and School Association Annual Conference. I say I was invited because I don’t want to come off like a petulant child whose attitude after not being invited to the party comes off as petty jealousy: I was invited. I also want to indicate that I didn’t turn down the invitation out of some “high horse” resistance to the education corporate machine. If I had been able to attend, I certainly would have been there (it was a paid gig after all). The attendee list reads as a bit of a who’s who of Ontario Educator Social Media users (it was like someone had collected up everyone who @dougpete had ever #FF’ed and then put them in the same room), and I would have loved to opportunity to rub shoulders with them.
That said, having watched the event from afar, I’m not sad that I didn’t end up going. I say that with caveats. I’m sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to be in that room working with those people. Although I see them at events like ECOO, inevitably they are the ones running seminars, so we don’t get an opportunity to think deeply together about important topics like Social Media use in education. I would have liked to have been part of that think-tank, just to be in the presence of so many cutting edge educators. I’m not sad because from afar, seeing pictures of that Release form that was signed at the beginning of the day, it seems (although perhaps I am incorrect: I was not there) that the day was orchestrated to take the brilliant thinking of my colleagues, and use it to build a Social Media tool for Pearson. We cannot fault Pearson for this; it is a clear need in the system, and if I was them, I would want that group, in that room, telling me how to build it correctly. Just as Microsoft has realized with their latest version of Sharepoint, that social networking features like @mentions and #hashtags and “following” should be part of the workday, the technology industry in education should not be faulted for capitalizing on the emergence of social media use in the classroom.
Basically: if I could have been there, I would have been there, and I can imagine that despite the sponsor of the event, anytime that kind of intellectual capital finds itself in the same room together, the conversations at the table would be deep and meaningful and exhilarating. I am not writing this piece to attack those attendees. I count many of them as friends. I am writing this post because I think that we are missing part of the conversation if we don’t understand that we can do this without Pearson.
I also know that despite what I am about to espouse about the evils of corporate education, my hands are not clean. I talk a lot about using Google Apps for Education, which despite their “do no evil” motto, can be seen as a commercial monolith in their own right. I also promote Apple products quite readily, so I recognize that I am a shill for the corporate education sector. With all that said, I should probably be silent. One should not stand up attacking the evils of eating meat, only to admit to making an exception for chicken and fish; and I shouldn’t try to point fingers at the inclusion of commercial tools in education, when I use and introduce them readily into the classroom. But that said, I have never been know to be silent when I should be silent.
This particular conversation — about Social Media, and its use in education — is close to my heart. Having been one of the architects behind the HWDSB Commons, I know what can be built with Open Source tools. We use WordPress and BuddyPress to build the Commons. The work we do is based in large part on the CUNY Commons, which you can read about in more detail here, where Boone (one of their developers) plots out a similar argument concerning Blackboard vs. Open Source. You should also take a moment to read about the groundswell of interest in using WordPress within education in this article.
Having Pearson build a social network for education makes sense in an education system that does not tend to staff developers, and prefers to outsource a good deal of its infrastructure to tried and true “industry standard” tools. It’s why we don’t see more banks of computers running Ubuntu, despite the obvious savings that could be had in education if we ran more free and open source software (I’m scared to know what we pay Microsoft in licensing as a Province). There are certainly benefits to having that corporate backing. I cannot pretend that maintaining the Commons in an environment that is not accustomed to supporting open source tools has been easy. Some days Google is the best technical help we can call upon, and with 12 000 users, that isn’t a very reliable model.
I wish we could shift that focus though. We can continue to raise little consumers, feeding them into the corporate womb of Google or Microsoft or Pearson, years before they are able to make the informed decision for themselves; or we can introduce them to an international community of software developers who give back to their community. Individuals and groups who take what they produce for their own needs, and make those things available so that others can benefit as well. We could teach them that they can also contribute, in small or large ways, to the benefit of the community, by sharing code they produce, or reporting issues to people who can help fix issues (all of us are better than one of us…).
I am not celebrating these tools only because they are free. Nothing is ever truly free, and if schools or boards are adopting WordPress as merely a monetary decision they are missing the point. The HWDSB Commons is a small blip on the Education Technology radar, but we have helped (monetarily) with the development of a plugin that allows users to Follow each other. We have helped with the development of a plugin that allows teachers to take those followers and separate them into individual lists. A request from me, triggered the development of a Doppelme integration that allows students to create avatars, without sharing real photographs of themselves (the Doppelme developers did this for free once they found out we were an educational institution). We have helped with the development of a plugin that forces users to use their username, rather than being able to change how they are identified on the network. These are small things; but these things will make it easier for other institutions to build what we have built. And when they build it, they too will find and develop functionality that is of use to their community, and our hope is that they will share that with the education sector (and the open source community) as a whole. We are currently working on integrating our Commons platform, with the Ontario Education Ministry’s Learning Management System. When that is done, we will share that code with our fellow educators as well.
There is some consensus that we don't need Pearson to do this work. But they want in. #ontsm
— Sue Dunlop (@Dunlop_Sue) April 27, 2013
I am heartened by the tweet above, that suggests that there is a realization that we can do this for ourselves. The problem remains that we work in a system that doesn’t necessarily have the means to do it for themselves. We need a shift, maybe as high up as the Provincial level, that says that we will embrace open source, and teach students how to become part of the open source community, as a component of becoming a good digital citizen, rather than creating a digital pathway that drives them into the corporate arms of a company waiting to cultivate life-long dependence at a younger and younger age.