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.

Pearson Release Form
Pearson Release Form

 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.

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.

Published by jarbenne

Jared Bennett is the Student Information System Consultant at Hamilton Wentworth District School Board.

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  1. Having come from a logistically strangled $321/person “Google Summit” the week before where apps were evangelized with a zeal that approached what I’ve seen in the hard sells of time share scams, and attendees were given Google clothes and other gear, I found the Pearson session today (run by local Ontario teachers, not high priced American consultants) to be a hands off affair that asked our opinion (rather than telling us). I too am a fan of open source software, but in an education system that has perhaps the most technologically disinterested workforce of any sector I can think of, there is (sadly) the necessity for corporate expertise. If Pearson is willing to be more collegial than a certain American worldwide tech-Megacorps, then so much the better. It remains to be seen what happens with the media, but one reason I did it is because of the credibility and integrity of the two Ontario educators who ran it. My 2¢. It was helpful to my thinking to be able to bounce ideas off those people grappling with the same things I am. I don’t regret doing it, though last week is a different story.

    1. I completely agree. My post was intended to be a way to “contribute” in ways I would have done in person at an event like this. Don’t regret participating: if Pearson is truly interested in creating a tool that will answer the needs of our classroom that’s awesome. Andrew does a nice job explaining some of the disconnect between what was taking place in the room, vs what it looked like from outside, and that disconnect probably coloured by post. My hope was to add the other alternative view, that maybe we don’t need anyone to build it for us.

  2. Thank you for your honesty.

    I can only speak from the outside. I was not invited. I watched from afar. The fact that this was a Pearson event, and that people were paid to go, was well disguised. I even tweeted something about how teachers were taking their Saturday off to learn and that was the real story about Ontario teachers. Not so real in this case, though with all the Ontario education heavyweights in the room, it would be true on almost any other Saturday.

    I learned a lot today. I learned about exclusion, and I will be a better Principal as a result. I learned about how something as seemingly unimportant as the choice of a hashtag can incite such anger (do 50 self-selected “experts” really speak for #Ontario? Of course this was back when the Twitterverse thought participants were self-selected, before the Pearson-selected part became common knowledge). I learned how strongly I believe in #open, and how strongly I assumed that was the case today, and I learned that as internet-savvy as I think I am, I am easily duped too. I will be wiser from now on.

    Thank you for giving us the opportunity to hear your story. If only it had been this open from the very start of #ontsm.

    Oh yes, and we (in ALL of #Ontario) can do this without Pearson. Without a doubt.

  3. The notion that Pearson is going to build a social media tool from today is laughable. Today was a bit like trying to heard cats and Pearson Canada developing a social media tool is as likely as Tonga developing a nuclear capability. Most of their staff aren’t on SM of any kind and don’t understand it at all. They really don’t know what they’re doing and this was them trying to learn a bit about it. The educators who attended are too savvy to allow themselves to be exploited in that way.

    1. I agree about the savviness of the participants. I also see that everyone was not forced to sign the release form, which is another element that supports what @tk1ing shares above regarding the respectful tone of the day.

      My fear is that an event like this is the first shot, and although seemingly insignificant, Pearson has one thing that “Tonga” does not: the means to buy a tool like Edmodo to immediately become a huge player.

  4. Let Pearson make what they wish. Hopefully, they will learn from Common Sense Media and make the products they create free to students and teachers using them.

  5. It’s too bad Pearson appointed 1 or 2 teachers to select who would best represent Ontario as social media “experts” in the classroom instead of opening up an application process in a fair and non-partisan manner. Through this invitation-only process we have been ranked and rated through exclusion/inclusion, all based on the opinions of one or two people. I have learned a lot about how reputations are made today and feel unsettled by this. I hope you do too.

    Still, I worry my post will be dismissed by a few who think anyone upset about being left out is acting like a petulant child having a tantrum over not being invited to a party. This is neither collegial or respectful. It is elitist-just like the selection process that took place for #ontsm

  6. As a part of today’s gathering, I felt that this symposium was merely an exploratory practice in discussing SM and its murky role in our classrooms and our lives as educators. I commend your personal involvement in developing open platforms for your board. But as tk1ng have posted, there is no other professional endeavour that is as averse to change and evolution as in education. Yes, the evolution I’m referring to involves technology. I’ve been around so many like minded-educators that “DIY’ed and hacked around” to make things work in their classrooms. Many are trying really hard but with the lack of support from our respective boards, where do most teachers turn to?

    I agree with Andrew as well. Today was not about the development of a system that has some form of SM capacity embedded in it. In fact, in our last discussion session, I openly asked Pearson what the heck they wanted. I asked them point blank whether they plan to develop a content management system, a website or app interface? The answer? They don’t know. It was clearly a foray into the unknown (just as much as most of the people participating in it).

    Pearson, Nelson, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Microsoft, Apple and the hundreds of companies involved in education is not a new concept. They are corporate entities with a clear bottom line. I disagree that we can do it alone. In the age of austerity, training for teachers, coupled with new contemporary expectations gives way for corporate entities like Pearson to be that much MORE important. No, I’m not selling out (although a quick glance at my lab can make one think that I’ve sold my soul to Apple). I’m aware of board-approved vendors and agreements made by school boards with companies often without consulting teachers. They’re there and always will be. To dismiss their absence is naive. We as educators should always strive for balance and partnerships with Pearson is not necessarily a bad thing. They’ve been selling schools books for eons if I’m not mistaken. I don’t get why today was suddenly an issue of corporate involvement in education.

    I appreciated the hands off nature of today’s event. I also appreciate that the participants were compensated for their time and effort (my current and past boards have consulted me enough times without as much as a cup of coffee). All I know is that the future is going through a lot of changes. I’d like to be in an education sphere where many, if not all teachers can adopt new practices (not just the few of us that may know how because of deeper understanding with technological concepts – ie. coding, networking, etc.) through the tools created by entities that are in the business of making tools.

    1. I am certainly not trying to conjure up regret in the attendees, and based on the format, and the respected colleagues who helped to organize and steer the day, I’m sure it was a great experience. I’m not trying to paint the participants as corp. sellouts. I apologize if that’s how it comes off (it seems to be the rumbling on Twitter, which by the time you include the 10 @names of the participants of the discussion, you are left with 10 characters worth of content to contribute to the conversation).

      I can understand why Pearson would be worried. The internet has created the opportunity to distribute knowledge for free, rather than depending on shiny textbooks. I completely recognize that we can’t disassociate ourselves from tech companies entirely. 3D printing doesn’t let me create a tablet based on Open Source blueprints (yet).

      What I am lamenting is that we still work in a culture that believes that it takes a company to do this. We aren’t there yet by any stretch, but what I’m suggesting is that if we were to take some of the money we direct to corporations and start to see Open Source as a possible alternative, we “could” end up with a much more agile and responsive tool (this model requires all of us to pull together, so we have more capabilities than the corp organization, rather than less). I am not suggesting that teachers are the ones building the tool. We need to put people in roles within the technical side of our organizations who can help create entry-points for the “technologically disinterested”. In this age of austerity, it doesn’t make sense to pay for things that are available for free. We need to change the model so that the funds we use to pay for tools are diverted into PD in the classroom. Imagine if every Ontario classroom saw the
      repo of digital open source textbooks as an alternative to the costly corporate versions, and computer labs that were used mostly to access the internet ran variants of Linux, rather than spending millions of dollars on Windows. The Open Source software community creates a de-centralized group of people all making tools for themselves, and sharing them with others, which can lead to cost-sharing amongst organizations. (Think about how much money the Ministry pays to license Desire2Learn. What if that was a Moodle, and each board then had more DELCs)?

      I am in the midst of having an LMS Company create some customized code for me. We haven’t finalized the contract yet, but I imagine that whatever they build for me, they will sell to anyone else who would find it helpful. When I pay to have something developed for WordPress, it becomes available for free to anyone else who wants to use it: in this way we spend our money smarter: you don’t pay the LMS Company for the same code I just paid for, so you divert your money to something else that I may find useful. In this way we stand on each other’s shoulders.

      Today’s reality seems to require a corporation doing this for us, capitalizing on the fact that as an industry we don’t have the expertise or the infrastructure to do it ourselves; but I don’t think that we do this because we can’t afford to do it ourselves: I think we could spend our money differently. This is a blue sky hope. There is no judgement against those who are working within the system we currently have, who are trying to make it better. I’m just trying to raise awareness of the open source alternatives we “could” be leveraging.

      1. I am in full support of shared resources for improvement of all (teachers/students of any form and in any environment).
        All corporations I have contacted to date (e.g., Khan Academy, TechSmith) regarding the development of a cloud-based flipped PD platform have not shown interest…maybe because it is not profitable. I haven’t heard from Google yet. I have a meeting with a team from Norway this week. I am hoping that with their support, we can coordinate available PD efforts in an organized chaos kind of way.
        Any person could find and access their own POI (Point of Interest) and begin to explore their learning through video access, interactive experimentation, and discussions like Twitter. The VLP (Virtual Learning Platform) should be programmed to prompt users to possibly continue to explore their learning further (not to direct but to show ways of extending newly assimilated knowledge in a multitude of directions and fields of study).
        Pay it Forward should always have a place in any learning platform as well, so all users would be expected to offer their successes and/or challenges (things to avoid) in association with the learning goals they were working toward. All user related feedback would become part of a growing PD LP.
        Just a dream….but working together anything is possible.
        We are all working toward the same goal, running the same race via separate routes. Together we can lighten the load, streamline the result, and produce a self-sustaining learning environment for all.

        I hope everyone was able to follow that learning/sharing process.

        Have a great night.
        Andy Dobbie

          1. Your comment addresses part of the issue I’ve mentioned. Many educators either don’t know of a shared network or have to be invited to access it (or pay for access).
            Regardless, access to shared resources must remain free and be easily accessible by anyone world-wide.
            Many companies have their own self-help resources that are tool specific (related to the tool that company has created).
            I am proposing a shared space even bigger than Pearson can provide alone.

          2. I’m not sure what was mentioned in terms of a repository. I made the leap given Pearson’s involvement in the textbook industry. (I think that considering Pearson a “textbook company trying to re-invent themselves” is ignoring the vastness of the Pearson Machine: those school board who watched Pearson purchase ESIS to get into the Canadian Student Information System market would probably be safe in surmising that a company like Trillium may be next, leading to Pearson owning the Canadian SIS market.)

            I used textbooks only as another example of “something we pay corporations for that we may be able to build using Open Source tools”. Rod @thecleversheep Lucier shared a social cam regarding a repository of learning resources on his way back from the event: https://socialcam.com/videos/6D8kcFog, which Andy @aforgrave Forgrave pointed out on his Scoopit http://www.scoop.it/t/the-pearson-ontsm-event was the hope for the Ontario Curriculum Unit Planner (back when the internet was still cooling).

            In trying show another example of where open source can be leveraged in education, I mentioned http://ck12.org as a potential repository for open source text books. There is another open source sharing protocol called Merlot http://www.merlot.org/merlot/index.htm which shares resources in similar ways.

            What Rod talks about really is the type of infrastructure a tool like http://github.com offers up for coders. If I share “code” (a lesson plan) on github, other teachers can comment and suggest changes, which I can accept into my copy, or they can “fork” their own copy, which still references the source, but allows them to tweak it or make it better or different. This Git-style repository, if leveraged in education, could then be subscribed to and searched with functionality existing in Learning Management Systems. In the Ontario system, Desire2Learn contains a Learning Object Repository, that can be used to create a search path to Merlot-based repositories.

          3. http://github.com as an open source platform sounds like a possible tool for global sharing. I will check it out and start building, then report back….hopefully it works.

          4. I don’t know if I would suggest using Github for curriculum sharing, but the technology behind github mirrors a good deal of the functionality Rod talks about in that video.

  7. Jared,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I wanted to comment, but left it too late and now most people have said what I think! I will say this: what I found most interesting is the firestorm this created. It almost seems like a playground battle to someone who is just interested in using social media to connect with others. I must be naive – I don’t really get why people were so offended.

    The comments generated have been really fantastic – love a good, dissonant convo!

    1. I agree. I’ve really attempted to stay positive in all this, but I know I’ve probably been painted as being on the warring side. I did tweet about the “commercially exploit” line in the Release form, but what most struck me about that was not that people were signing it (and I heard many didn’t) but that there wasn’t a better “legalese” term to couch that in. Invariably, this was a great study on power of Social Media to both connect and obscure the message. In face-to-face discussions would things have become so heated? Would warm-hearted sarcasm (that’s a thing right?) be mistaken for malice.

      I fully recognize that there is a place for corporations in education. What worries me (and what drives me to the tools I use in the board), is not whether or not they are backed by a profitable enterprise, but whether or not they will fit my emerging understanding of what is necessary in the classroom. We see tools like Edmodo or Kidblog, emerging grassroots-style from the minds of teachers in the classroom who wanted to do things differently; to reimagine what is possible. My fear with any corporation trying to figure out how to “break-in” to a market — that others are building organically — is that the resulting effect could be coloured by attempts to continue to hold on to their existing infrastructure, when what we love about the new tools is that they shirk off that thinking entirely. Do I want a social textbook, or do I want a social network? Am I worried that the federalized way in which we can share and connect on multiple platforms gets lost if we end up on a more private, paid model?

      We see the same issues with traditional Learning Management Systems, that digitize the closed classroom, but fail to provision windows out into the wider world. There are advantages to taking the classroom discussion online in terms of temporal accessibility, but a discussion forum accessible only to the members of your classroom doesn’t re-define or re-imagine what is possible (Insert SAMR model reference quote here 😉 ).

      It’s too bad the #ontsm hashtag has been sullied in this way. Clearly there is an emerging discussion that could take the form of a weekly chat, as we all wrestle with what this looks like, and how it fits. Maybe Pearson will be the one to build it for us; or maybe we will stop paying for things that are free ( embrace Open Source Software, Open Source Textbooks, The Internet (I hear it’s full of free info), Linux), and start focusing our funding on things we can’t provision for free (hardware for students to be able to access this new world, and PD to ensure it is being leveraged effectively). As I said before, currently most boards are not configured to take on this change: there is so much work to be done to prepare to take on the changes we “could” begin to enact. In the meantime, the sales-reps will be at the door, filling a necessary gap.

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