No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

I recently wrote about the Apple ITSC events that I was lucky enough to have been a part of.  They’re all over now, and after having participated at ITSCs on the Gold Coast, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne (as well as the one in my home town of Sydney) I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed being involved in them.  One of the best aspects of the way ITSC was run this year was the way they leveraged the unconference concept and tried to break away from the traditional “sit and git” model of learning at conferences.  The unconference model is a good model for learning because it attempts to meet people’s needs for knowledge, allowing those with expertise to share it and those with questions to ask them.  The lack of rigid structure is what makes it work along with the fact that you learn more when you get actively involved in learning about things that are directly relevant to you.

If you ever want to run an unconference, there is plenty of advice online about how you might do it, but when it’s all boiled down, the “rules” for an unconference could be summarised as…

  1. The people who come are the best people who could have come.
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
  3. It starts when it starts.
  4. It’s over when it’s over.
  5. The Law of Two Feet (“If you are not learning or contributing to a talk or presentation or discussion it is your responsibility to find somewhere where you can contribute or learn”).

My first real unconference experience happened in Christchurch NZ last year at the ULearn event.  It was organised – or rather, unorganised – by a small group of volunteers, and it’s notable feature was the lack of any rigid structure.  A few tables were set up, people joined in conversations taking place at the tables and then just moved around the room whenever they felt they wanted to move on.  We had some really great conversations about all manner of things that really made a difference to what I took away from the main conference.

MCloser to home, my partner Linda was recently part of an international team of people who planned an unconference event for the IABC World Conference held recently in Toronto, Canada.  So I’ve seen first hand just what’s involved in planned a great unconference event.  While there is definitely a lot of planning involved, on the actual day it works best if there is a great deal of flexibility in how people interact with the event.  People give what they can give, and they take what they can take.  That’s the spirit of an unconference.

Which brings me to the main point of this post. I spent most of today at MoodleCamp Sydney, an unconference-style event for people interested in the open source learning management system called Moodle.  It was organised by Sydney Moodler Jason Hando, a guy I’ve known online for quite a few years, although we only met in person recently for the first time.  I got an email from Jason inviting me to the MoodleCamp event and I signed up right away, with an intention to not only attend but to contribute something from my own school’s journey with Moodle over the last few years.  Jason also emailed me a few days before the event and asked for some extra assistance with the design and creation of some certificates of attendance for the participants, as well as asking if I’d help out with facilitating one of the rooms on the day.  Naturally, wanting to be helpful, I agreed to both.

So today, I turned up at the Sydney Distance Education High School at Wolloomooloo to join my fellow Moodlers to learn lots of cool stuff about Moodle.  For a variety of reasons the event didn’t really hit the mark for me, partly because the organisation of it was not particularly like an unconference, but mostly because of a very public falling out with Jason Hando over an issue in which I thought he was being particularly obnoxious and belligerent, and which escalated into a very ugly situation for everyone.

The first concern was with the way the event was organised.  And ok, maybe I’m being picky, but for an event that was constantly being promoted (positively) as “unorganised”, “unofficial”, “ad-hoc”, etc, right through to the way participants were being referred to as “unparticipants”, when push came to shove it was just as traditional as a normal conference event.  I’m sure Jason had put a lot of time and effort into making the event happen, including providing a rather good looking lunch (I never ate any of it, so I don’t know how it tasted, but it looked good). The venue as very nice, and the potential was there for it to be a really good event.  However, as the day unfolded it turned out to be not so much an unconference, but rather just a series of short traditional presentations, mostly given in a fairly transmissive mode from speaker to audience.

The day was split into 20 minute sessions, and while I understood the reasoning for this, I didn’t think it was really in the spirit of the way an unconference is meant to work… it was simply too structured. Just as I found myself engaging with ideas that were raised, it was time to move on to the next session.  Most of the speakers (including myself) were just trying to get through all they wanted to say in their 20 minute slot, so there wasn’t nearly enough time for questions, conversations and actual sharing.  I felt that just as things got interesting, the “bell would go” and it was time to move to the next lesson. On the flipside, some sessions would drag on past the point at which I was finding them useful, but we kept going anyway because our 20 minutes wasn’t up yet… so much for the Law of Two Feet. For an event that was constantly promoted as being somewhat counter-cultural, it was surprisingly traditional.  Even the layout of the room was surprisingly traditional… the main part of the room was set up with rows of chairs facing the front, where “the front” was a stage with a lectern on it, a projector screen and plenty of PowerPoint/Keynote slides full of bulleted text.  The two breakout rooms were also set up with rows of chairs facing the front, with a screen and a place for “the teacher” to talk to “the students”.  The best parts of the day were the breaks between sessions where the conversation flowed freely and people were sharing ideas and showing each other things on their laptops… but in an unconference, this is what the sessions are supposed to feel like, not just the breaks between the sessions.

The other big issue I had with the day (and which possibly coloured my entire experience of the event) was the very public dressing-down I got from Jason Hando over an issue that he and I did not see eye to eye on.  It’s a long story and I don’t want to embarrass the other person involved, but the belligerence and unreasonableness from Jason was completely over the top.  Another participant arrived at the event – someone I know quite well and whom I consider a friend – and apparently Jason took exception to both his presence at the event and what he planned to present.  This person is extremely active and well known in the Moodle community, and has a reputation for being generous with both his time and his considerable expertise. To contribute to the event, as well as running a very valuable session, he wanted to donate some Moodle books as prizes and also to host a quick Skype call to a surprise guest Moodler. I’m sure that both of these things would have been exceptionally well received by everyone at the event.

Instead of welcoming this person and valuing the great contribution they might be able to make to MoodleCamp, Jason saw this person as a threat and told them to leave and that he was not welcome.  When I found out what happened I tried to act as a voice of reason to settle the disagreement, and I managed to get both parties in the other room to try and sort out what should have been a minor misunderstanding.  Instead, I got a hostile, antagonistic diatribe from Jason about why this person’s motives (which I KNOW were pure) were unacceptable to him. Jason was upset that this person had not contacted him in advance to advise that there would be free books and a Skype call taking place. I explained that I disagreed, that the whole point of an unconference was to be spontaneous, and that no one should have to “clear things” with the organisers if they were obviously in the interests of all participants. Jason expressed concern that this other person would somehow try to commercialise “his” event and he took exception to the fact that this person wore a shirt with a Moodle logo on it… he somehow saw this as a indication that someone from Moodle was “checking up” on him. (For the record, the shirt was one that any active member of the Moodle community is entitled to wear). When I disagreed with Jason’s view, he started ranting about how I was “in bed with” this other person and that I was clearly part of the problem.  The illogical nature of Jason’s reasoning got more and more surreal, and the conversation got more and more heated.  When we were finally joined by Jason’s offsider Danielle, who also spouted the same unreasonable nonsense as Jason, I threw my hands up and exclaimed in absolute frustration “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!”  Jason and Danielle both immediately switched the focus of the issue to the use of the word “fuck” and started carrying on about how offended they were because I swore at them.  Just to be clear, I didn’t swear AT them, I swore NEAR them.  Danielle went off her head about it, and her and Jason started telling me I wasn’t welcome and that I had to leave.

To say I was pissed off is a massive understatement.  I was pissed off at the ludicrous argument that Jason proposed as to why giving away books or wearing a shirt with a particular logo on it was inappropriate at an unconference.  I was pissed off that he had such unfounded, unreasonable suspicions about the motives of one of the most generous people I know. I was pissed off that he was acting like a completely spoiled child who wanted to take an “it’s my unconference and I’ll do whatever I want” attitude to it.  And I was pissed off that he was taking the democratic, free speech ideals of the unconference concept and micromanaging and filtering it in a way that would make even Steve Jobs cringe.

So, having been asked to leave, I left.  But as I walked back to the car, I thought to myself “Hang on, I came here to learn. I’m not going to let some upstart with a bad attitude ruin that”.  So I went back into the room and sat down.  By this point, Jason was standing on the stage, welcoming people and thanking everyone who helped make the day happen.  He then had the audacity to list me as one of his helpers (which, until that point, I was) then he paused, pointed a finger at me from the stage and said “Didn’t I just tell you to leave?”

“Yeah, but I came back.”

“I want you to leave.  You’re not welcome.”  Then he addressed the entire audience who were present and relayed his distorted version of what happened in the back room.  Not the whole story mind you, just the fact that I said “fuck”. In fact, according to Jason I said it 5 or 6 times, which is actually untrue.  He also said that I directed the swearing at Danielle, which was also untrue.

So he then asked me, publicly from the stage, to leave.  I said no. He said he would not continue talking until I left and he walked away from the microphone. I said I was staying. Long pause.  I then suggested that he stop carrying on like a belligerent child and move on, but he refused.  It was embarrassing.  Not for me.  For him.  His puerile behaviour made him look like a complete jackass, but I was certainly not impressed with the very public airing of our dirty laundry.  To have a disagreement with someone is one thing.  To have it escalate into an argument is unfortunate, but we could have dealt with it.  But to air that argument in public, in front of a room full of people, giving only his side of the story, and to make it seem like the core of the issue was because I used a “bad word” is quite another thing.  In the end, I made it clear that I had no intention of leaving, and he eventually continued, but only after demanding a public apology for what he saw as the issue. He was embarrassingly immature in front of the whole room of people.

Let’s be clear. The issue was not the swear word.  The real issue was Jason’s totally unreasonable attitude towards a conference participant who he clearly had a longstanding beef with. The real issue was the fact that, even when he dragged me in as an “adjudicator”, when he didn’t get the agreement from me that he wanted, he turned nasty about it. The real issue was that he acted like this was “his” event, and not the participants’ event. The real issue was the “right of veto” nonsense he tried to pull when he felt that someone else might pick up some consultancy work as a result of the day (something which is very clearly in competition with his own business goals)  The real issue was the massive dummy spit he had when people didn’t share his views, to the point where he felt he could order them to leave.  Jason’s business is doing Moodle consultancy and there’s no doubt in my mind that MoodleCamp was a way of expanding his own customer base.  Reading between the lines, the thought of someone else coming along who might be seen as having more expertise, and therefore being a threat to his business, was too much for him and he snapped.

For the record, I approached Danielle afterwards and offered my apology if I caused her offence, and pointed out that my frustration was not directed at her.  I also, despite the fact that I really didn’t feel much like making any contributions at all after that, still presented a session since that’s part of the reason I came in the first place. And as for the “free lunch”, maybe it’s just cutting off my nose to spite my face, but there was no way I was going to take anything from someone who feels it’s ok to publicly embarrass me like that.

I don’t normally take my disagreements public but since that’s what Jason decided to do from the stage, I’m not going to take it lying down.  As another delegate confided to me later, “I can’t believe what an idiot he was to do that.  Of all the people to do that to, he should know better than to do it to you.”  Publicly embarrassing a blogger?  Bad idea.

The comments are open.  I’m quite happy to get an apology from Jason.  Otherwise, bring it on baby, because I’m filthy dirty about the way I was treated.

CC BY-SA 4.0 No Such Thing As A Free Lunch by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

16 Replies to “No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”

  1. Hi Chris,
    sorry to hear about the fiasco!
    time is precious- to spend it being abused is not on!
    I hope you have a great day tomorrow as nothing will change what happened today but the sooner you let it go the better for you!

    As a blogger I am sure you already know that!!

  2. Wow. You certainly had an eventful day Chris. Of course, there’s two sides to every story, but your reasoning for the events sounds quite plausible and your actions understandable. If I were In Jason’s shoes I’d be happy to accept the presence of Moodle “authorities” as they would likely reinforce my position as a credible Moodle consultant.

    Sounds like ego overruled that logic.

  3. Hope you feel better about it tomorrow. But at least the you have the knowledge that you gave your best in your sessions and people went away knowing a little more than they did before. That is what you need to focus on now….. the joy that you shared with people.

  4. Knowing who was from Moodle a this event, I can only say his attitude is so selfless when at events, he is an assest to any un-conference/conference, and to have the founder of any organisation live would be a coo at any event….what a shame for the participants.

    I hope you recover from this sad day Chris…and all this serves me well as I’m about to start organising an un-conference in the NSW Western Region to held in Dubbo next term. Only planned to be a small event, and to have all participants give to the event, timely to hear how one is supposed to run.

  5. Being a big proponent of unconferences for educators, it’s quickly becoming increasingly frustrating to me when people want to call their event an “unconference” just because that means it’s cheaply run, not because it’s truly participant-driven.

    I empathize with Jason’s worries about the commercialization of his event, but it seems to me that when you make your decision to make your event all about a specific software tool, you’ve kind of already made your bed.

  6. Hi Chris,

    To my mind an unconference is like nonformal education which was the basis of my MEd Thesis. In my experience with colleagues including you, it that it happens as a gathering in a formal conference/gathering. Usually this is happening in the hallways, lounge chairs or coffee areas while the formal presentations are happening in the “lecture rooms”. Or it happens when for example when a group of people meet up at Darling Harbour for example when someone is in town and the word goes out and we we all learn and share in nonformal setting.

    Sounds like you attended a Moodle workshop or small conference.

    cheers Martin

  7. I am happy to say that I was indeed the “Moodle guy” at the unconference (thought it about time i come out from behind the curtain). I work now with a Moodle Partner in Oz and have also been rather prolific on the moodle website for a number of years as a volunteer. Now working for a partner, many forget that I started off as, have continued to be and will always be a passionate moodler. I just have the luck of being able to turn my passion into my job as well.

    I turned up to the event with some Moodle books, Moodle badges and a couple of shirts for the organisers to give away at their leisure. The intent being to share knowledge. None of these had any of my company information attached or any commitment that they be spruiked on my behalf. I should also point out I came wearing a Moodle shirt. Apparently a shirt is a bad thing!

    Sadly though I was seen only as the Partner employee I now am rather than as the passionate Moodler I attended as. While i can completely understand where this fear may arise from, the assumption and the fact i was guilty on arrival created some stress. 🙁 Within 10 minutes of arriving I was asked to leave the event as I was seen as a commercial combatant and not welcome.

    Now, in Jason’s defense. Should I have turned up spruiking my commercial services, armed with flyers and business cards, I would have also reacted in a negative way. An un-conference is not about that. It is about community building, sharing of knowledge and building a community of practice. But as I was not, the assumption was not only unhelpful, it sadly led to much of the stress listed by Chris above.

    As anyone who knows me can attest to, I still am about the Moodle! Not about commercialization of this great product. The good news is that after the mornings stress, things did settle down. Constructive conversation was had and assumptions were put to rest. Long story short, I was allowed to stay, share my knowledge of Moodle 2, answer a whole bunch of questions from users and participated in what was a great get together of fellow enthusiasts.

    I agree with Chris’ points above re: the structure, but like many things when done for a first time, it was a leaning experience for all. I for one am looking forward to what the next one will bring. I just wont wear a shirt 🙂

  8. Thanks to everyone for the supportive comments. Sounds like a lot of people thought I was a bit upset about the whole thing 😉 I suppose I was, but not in a way that is causing me any grief, so thanks for the concern, but really I’m fine.

    Since posting this, I did receive an email from Jason. Not an apology mind you, but ordering me to take this post down. Had he said something adult-like, such as, “look, this has gotten completely out of hand, how about we call a truce and put it behind us” then maybe i would think about complying. But no, it was simply an order for me to do what he wanted, much the same as he tried to order me to leave the conference when I didn’t share his point of view. Screw you.

    And Julian, good on you for throwing your opinion into the pot. I didn’t want to drag you into in publicly, so kudos to you for being brave enough to come out from behind the curtain.

    Let’s hope that the next MoodleCamp doesn’t suffer from these petty issues. I have a feeling that I won’t be welcome to any more, but hey, it’s a small price to pay for being able to voice my opinion about these bully-boy tactics.

  9. A few people have contacted me offline and suggested that it was not a good idea to publish this post. They’ve been very nice about it and I know they have the best of intentions for suggesting it. They don’t want me to say something I regret later.

    I appreciate your concern, but I did think very hard about it before I wrote this, and also before I hit the publish button. I realise that to publish this simply escalates the issue, and makes it even harder to back down from. The suggestions have been that it will be better in the long run if I just let it go.

    I wasn’t going to publish it at first since it seemed silly to take our private argument into a public place, but then I realised that Jason had already breached that boundary… By embarrassing me in front of the whole conference like that, Jason has already made this public. So I decided I really had no choice but to publish it after all.

    And I’m glad I did. Today I got this email passed on to me from a friend who had a colleague that attended the event yesterday… Given only some of the facts, this person very obviously saw me as the bad guy… their email said…

    “He embarrassed himself by being abusive to the staff of Utopia. He was asked to leave actually but eventually permitted to stay if he started to behave. They needed a World Cup Red Card for him. It is a pity he has chosen to denigrate a very worthwhile day. One can only presume his pride was hurt.”

    And that’s my problem with this whole thing. But singling me out in front of everyone and making a big deal about something that wasn’t even the real issue, it made me out to be the bad guy. The writer of the above email, hearing only one side of the story, had a very skewed version of events. I know who really needed the Red card! And it’s at moments like this that I’m very glad I own my very own printing press known as a blog. I can at least tell my side of the story.

    To whoever wrote that email, I hope you take the time to find out the real story of what happened. I hope you realise that I wasn’t *choosing* to denigrate anything. In fact, that’s why I came back, so I could continue to make a positive contribution to the rest of the day, despite the shitstorm that Jason started.

    In my post, I suggested that one of the reasons Jason was so defensive about the whole thing was that he was using MoodleCamp as a way to promote his own business interests. I’m sure he’d try to deny that.

    But I think it interesting that the email refers to him not as “the unconference organiser”, but rather as “the staff of Utopia”. Pretty clearly, whoever wrote that email was under the distinct impression that Jason and his team were there to represent their own business interests, and not simply just those of interested members of the Moodle community.

  10. What interests me in this is not the personal conflict. I personally believe that as a blogger, you should always avoid personal attacks on the web

    What interests me is that what is reported in this post could indicate that we are at a critical stage of a transformation, with the concept of unconference at least, having “crossed the chasm” over the last months http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Chasm.

    Because of their growing popularity, a larger number of people are encouraged to give a try to these new practices of unconferences and student empowerment (relinquishment of control). A problem is that the profile of the person trying now is likely to be quite different from the one of those who helped made the concept popular. In that wikipedia article expanding on the adoption lifecycle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_adoption_lifecycle, the different categories of adoption group are as follow.
    – innovators – had larger farms, were more educated, more prosperous and more risk-oriented
    – early adopters – younger, more educated, tended to be community leaders
    – early majority – more conservative but open to new ideas, active in community and influence to neighbours
    – late majority – older, less educated, fairly conservative and less socially active
    – laggards – very conservative, had small farms and capital, oldest and least educated

    Having never met Jason before reading this, but having run a quick search on google, it looks like he is part of the early majority “more conservative but open to new ideas, active in community and influence to neighbours”. Yes, a person like Jason is happy to try new things. But these new things don’t come naturally to him, like they would for an innovator or early adopter. Innovators and early adopters embrace change. They are familiar with the initial discomfort of trying something new. They know, by experience, that they are most likely to find a safe and solid ground after crossing the uncertain ground.

    For most persons, change doesn’t come that easily. For most persons, when you have the feeling that you fail, the reflex is to revert to the old way of doing things.

    It seems that adoption has now reached early majority. What do we do to convince the ones who try to adopt rather than reject? How do we cope with the fact that some ideas will be

    Jason tried. As a community, how do we want to treat the persons who try but fail on their first attempt? Do we want to make them feel as this is something that is beyond their reach or do we want to help them pick themselves up and try again?

  11. A second thing did strike me.

    What was the apparent trigger of the conflict. A person who is apparently perceived as having commercial interests joining an education event.

    Julian wrote “Sadly though I was seen only as the Partner employee I now am rather than as the passionate Moodler I attended as. While i can completely understand where this fear may arise from, the assumption and the fact i was guilty on arrival created some stress. Within 10 minutes of arriving I was asked to leave the event as I was seen as a commercial combatant and not welcome.”

    That’s well aligned with my own perception. I had a first career as an educator. Frustrated by the way the technology provided to me by good willing but distant management failed to serve my needs, I started spending more and more time learning technology, gaining autonomy. At some point, I ended up on the other side. I am now a full time developer.

    And I came to experience the following paradox. As an educator, I never had a chance to talk with the person providing me technical solutions. Decisions were made without asking about my needs or without asking for feedback in the early stages of a project. I would have liked to. Now, as a developer, whenever I try and join education communities as a participant (without a commercial hat), I am treated suspiciously because I also have commercial activities (non education).

    The problem is, I am not kept at a distance by fellow educators. I am kept at a distance the same Julian was, by a person way higher up in the chain. A person who had carved a niche, had created a channel to potential clients and wanted to keep competitors away (a consultant of a person who benefits from government funding). I get to suffer from the same situation that frustrated me as an educator, but from the other side of the fence. (services of limited value provided by good willing benefactors when I am fully aware that better solutions exist elsewhere)

    Of course, as a member of various education communities, I do hate cold calls, these commercial guys who don’t even care to read my profile but tell me that given I have an interest in education, I am likely to be interested in product x or y… here is the link. These are appealing practices by a very small minority of persons with commercial interests in education.

    However, my understanding is that one of the reason Moodle became widely successful is because they have, early on, developed an ecosystem in which people are rewarded for the time they take to develop extra functionalities. The education community benefited immensely of that.

    With the advent of microtransactions the landscape has dramatically changed. Because of the ease there is to get your product to a large market, prices can be dramatically reduced. You know, these applications that are sometimes quite complex but only cost $2-$5 dollars on the appStore, when the same product would have costed $200 three years ago).

    This could present fantastic opportunities for educators to have their needs better addressed. Yet, it remains very difficult to make contact with the end user (teacher student), to gather information about their needs or their likes.

    Just wondering, would it be possible to come up with a solution, infrastructure, that would let educators and developers communicate on the needs and pains of the education community in ways that are respectful of the education value?

    What are educators thoughts on this?

    1. Marielle,

      Thanks for your two lengthy, well thought out, replies. You raise a whole lot of interesting issues that, although take a bigger picture view and provide some food for thought about some of the bigger issues that underpin this event instance. And really, that’s all it was, an instance. I like that you’ve gone for a much bigger, almost philosophical, view of the whole thing.

      The whole tension between educators and commercial interests is an interesting one. Interesting to me for several reasons… If you know Julian you’d know that he is perfectly capable of knowing exactly where the line is between whatever commercial interests he might have versus the “purer” motives of education and a community interest in Moodle. He wasn’t there to “sell”, he was there to tell. His contribution to something like a MoodleCamp – or any Moodle related event – should be seen as a huge boon for anyone else who was there.

      The irony of why he was asked to leave – which was simply massive paranoia about him promoting his own interests ahead of the community of users of which he has not only belonged to and served for many few years, but which he continues to be a part of – is what makes the story so ludicrous. He wore a shirt with a Moodle logo on it – to a MoodleCamp event! – and this was seen as being a conflict of interest. It crazy. I said to Jason at the time, had I owned a T-shirt that had Moodle-whatever printed on it, I would have worn it.

      But to the bigger issue, you’re right, we need to know where the commercial boundaries lie. In hindsight, when people signed up to attend the MoodleCamp there should probably have been a small disclaimer that they needed to agree to that essentially said they were agreeing to not do any overt product promotions, etc. But there was no such disclaimer. Instead the “non-commercial clause” was a rule that was being made up on the fly, as it suited the organisers, and selectively applied to people they personally had an issue with. I think that is very unprofessional.

      I run a couple of sites where there are discussion forums, etc, and I’m often having to “tap people on the shoulder” and have a quiet word about something they did that I felt was too self-promotional and almost spam-like. I’ve had to ask several people to respect the boundaries between their commercial interest and the general interests of the group. But there’s a right way to do it. You make it clear up front what the expectations are, and if and when those expectations are violated, you challenge them about it in private and you do it with tact.

      If developers stopped making products for the education market, teachers would all start screaming about it. Just look at the whole deal with Ning… they offered a great product, for free, to the education market, and when the obvious finally happens and they announce that they simply can’t afford to keep giving away something for nothing, the whole education scene goes into meltdown. “What do you mean we can’t have it for free?! You want us to actually PAY for it??”

      It’s a delicate line to walk, I agree. I totally get why Jason did not want any presenters turning MoodleCamp into an opportunity to spruik their own wares. That part is perfectly reasonable. What wasn’t reasonable was the dummy spit he did when he thought there was a slim chance of it happening, even though it hadn’t happened, and wasn’t going to happen. It was a complete over reaction to a scenario that was all in his own mind.

      And of course, although it wasn’t obvious to me at the time, the threat that such a possibility posed to his own commercial interests now seems so clear. After putting so much time and energy into organising this free event (including apparently forking out the money to pay for everyone’s lunch) the faintest whiff that someone else might benefit from his efforts must have seemed like a major threat. It certainly got a major reaction.

      I guess there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

  12. Thanks for your reply.

    “What do you mean we can’t have it for free?! You want us to actually PAY for it??”

    Yup, been doing that a lot when an educator. Then as I started being more involved in development, I had a chance to appreciate that getting a beta cost is a very small portion of the total development cost. Keeping the software current and useful (like for instance the recent mobile version of Moodle) requires constant investment.

    As you said, there is nothing like a free lunch. There are typically three options:
    1) government funding. Too many of the software that have been developed on some short term governmental grant have died a rapid death. Most don’t do too great in terms of usability. The type of expertise required to design a great software simply cannot be learned in a few weeks. It typically takes 3-5 years of full time activity to become expert at anything. If the funding is used to pay a company with the required expertise, then there is the problem that the clients of that company are the government body that provide the funding. Not the end user. Their task is to meet the needs of educators as understood at management level.
    2) free but with advertisement. Advertisement is not really acceptable in an education context because kids are involved (for a while Ning accepted to have no advertisement on education communities)
    3) paying. Five years ago, many products in the application market were priced quite high. Blackboard and WebCT keep their pricing hidden. They only make available an email or phone that direct you to a sales representative. Apparently, back in 2002, it was $90,000 for 6,000 users. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0LSH/is_4_5/ai_95447612/ One of the biggest community, Classroom 2.0 has 44,232 members. I think Steve has opted for the premium plan, which appars to be $500 a year (http://about.ning.com/announcement/plans.php). That’s a factor of 180 in price. WebCT in 2002 was 180 more expensive than Ning today!

    However, the real value was not the initially free and then low pricing. The real value of Ning is how it did empower the community by letting us use great technology without having to take the time to learn it. And in that aspect of usability / ease of use, it can be claimed that Ning did better than even the best open source tools that were specifically designed for an education market (like Moodle).

    There was a nice article on the concept of disintermedation, on the o’reilly radar:
    http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/05/disintermediation-risks-trends.html
    “Disintermediation is a process in which a middle player poised between service or product providers and their consumers is weakened or removed from the value chain. Disintermediation is driven by the fact that middle players consume resources and in removing them from the chain, these resources are recovered to enable either lower cost for the consumer, better value from the provider, or both.”

    “Let’s hope that the next MoodleCamp doesn’t suffer from these petty issues. I have a feeling that I won’t be welcome to any more, but hey, it’s a small price to pay for being able to voice my opinion about these bully-boy tactics.”

    Small price for you, I agree. What about the price to the community?

    Too often, it is implicitly explicitly said that commercial interests are not allowed. As a result, stealth tactics are adopted, as Jason did. This is far from being an isolated case. Here in NZ, most of the websites / services to education funded by the government have been developed by a very very small number of companies. This allows them to overcharge for services that are not always as good as they could be given the current state of technology. Similar to the webCT situation described above. A small group of vendors invest a lot of money to earn the trust of the big investors (government, schools). Once they are in position, they try and block competitors from entering the space.

    I personally don’t see this state of affair is as very beneficial to education. Ning demonstrated unambiguously the benefit there can to teachers of a more open model. One where the pricing and features are visible. One where anybody can make the purchase and not just someone high up in the management chain.

    Yes, there is nothing like a free lunch. But there are many persons like Julian out there. Making a living of their passion but being able to wear only one of their hats at a time. The salesman one when meeting persons who explicitly requested a quote and the community supporter one. Many of us would avoid to create a situation that we identify as a clear conflict of interest. If from the start it is clear in which role persons who happens to also have a commercial activity are welcome, explicit rules are set and published in the open as to what people get for their contribution, you may have multiple persons prepared to help cover the cost / organize. You may have the benefits without the harassment.

    Well, if you try disintermedation, or if you know anybody who does, let me know. I am curious to see how it works out.

  13. Sounds to me unconference is anarchy and we should know where that wont take us: nowhere useful. I think your experience has reinforced my celebration of conferencing as a valid social learning engagement from which presenters and audience benefit. Your experience is good reminder that bringing people together should be framed in agreed practice and social/lerning norms. No different to the classroom really.

    1. Agreed. 🙂 So long as everyone knows what the rules are, then everyone is happy… Or not, but that’s their choice. But if the rules are clear then everyone knows where the boundaries are. The problem here was that the rules were not clear, or rather, the goalposts got moved and the rules were suddenly changed.

      Anarchy per se is not a bad thing, as long as that’s what people are expecting.

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?