Head in the Sand

I was following a discussion on a mailing list today about the various internet blocking and filtering policies that different schools implement. Someone said their school was revising their fitering/blocking policy and wanted to know what others were doing. From the replies I saw, it seems that many schools are still running scared of what their kids might do on the web, and still block access to useful services like YouTube and Flickr, and pretent things like Facebook and Twitter don’t exist. Seems that even after 10 years, Web 2.0 is still a scary bogieman to many schools.

I’m curious to know why, in the schools that do block access to certain sites (and it sounds like it tends to be mainly social media sites), what educational reason is given.  I’m just trying to look at the other way for a moment and instead of assuming that sites should be blocked unless a case it made to unblock them, why we never seem to do it the other way around. Is there really any reliable research to support the idea that we block first and ask questions later?  In schools that block, what are the educational arguments given for why that blocking takes place?

The usual reason is “duty of care”. The idea that we need to be doing everything we can to protect our students from every possible harm. I’m more concerned about the other kind of harm. The kind caused by overprotective shielding from the real world.

I took a Year 6 class the other day and was teaching them some “Googling skills” and ways to find information quickly online.  We had an impromptu game of Google Trivia, where I was asking them quiz-style questions and they were trying to find the answers as quickly as possible.  At one point I simply said “Look up your own name”.  To the great surprise of many of them (about half the class) they DID find themselves online – mentions of their name in sporting results, school newsletter articles, family businesses, local newspapers stories, etc.  ALL of them were surprised and NONE of them had any idea that there was information about them to be found online (ie, they didn’t put the information online themselves).

It led into a really interesting discussion (and an idea that drives the access policy we implement at my school)… it’s not a question of IF you can be found online, it’s just a question of WHAT will it say about you.  There is no question that these students will end up with a digital footprint/tattoo as they grow older, and the “body of evidence” that defines their online existence will continue to grow as they get older.   This will happen whether they consciously do it or not… Does anyone seriously believe it won’t? So there is a fairly strong compulsion (in my opinion anyway) that we need to educate children to create and manage their digital presence/persona/footprint so that it says the right kinds of things about them. Putting our head in the sand and pretending that places like Facebook with it’s 600 million inhabitants, or Twitter with over 200 million users, can simply be ignored because there might be some risk involved is a massive failure of duty of care because we are neglecting to responsibly educate our kids in the very worlds they inhabit.

Blocking access to the social networks, and pretending these things will just go away if we ignore them, is foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst. I’m actually looking forward to the first class action suit against an education system for knowingly restricting students’ access to environments that are a core part of growing up in a digital world.  It’s not the “stranger danger” of the online world we need to be concerned about. It’s the culture of fear and uncertainly that we propagate by not allowing our kids to play responsibly in that world.

Image: ‘As seen on Halsted Mt
http://www.flickr.com/photos/24369373@N00/4817906071

Bye Bye Facebook

As you may have noticed, Facebook has been copping a great deal of flak in the media lately for recent changes to its privacy policy.  There is growing evidence that Facebook as a company has few scruples or ethics when it comes to the way they view and use your personal data.  The company has continually “baited and switched” the privacy settings in Facebook to the point where they have become so confusing and complex that few people truly understand them.  There are something like 50 choices leading to about 170 different privacy variations possible, all needing to made in multiple locations in Facebook, with very little consistency or “expected behaviour” between them…  consequently, there could be significant parts of your personal data that is being made public without you realising. Facebook seems to be working on the principle that most users never look at the default settings or take the time to think through their options.  The most recent changes made to their privacy policy have made the sharing of your personal information “opt-out”, rather than the previous method of “opt-in”.  This means that, unless you wade through the many privacy settings to turn them off, you are probably sharing far more than you realise. Added to this is the recent change to the Facebook Privacy Policy that essentially grants Facebook the rights to give your data to third parties and advertisers in order to target marketing to you.  The infographic to the right was created by Matt McKeon, and links to his page where you can explore an interactive version which shows how the default sharing policy on Facebook has changed over time.  It’s a bit scary!

Interestingly, the Facebook Privacy Policy –which all Facebook users must agree to in order to use the service – has grown to become almost 6000 words long.  Do you know what it says?

Personally, I find this unethical behaviour completely unacceptable and, along with many others across the web, have decided to close my Facebook account.  Like many Facebook users, there have been times when I’ve found the service useful in helping me connect to friend and family, but their recent display of unethical, almost fascist, behaviour has left me with little choice but to cancel the service.  Although I had taken the time in the past to secure my Facebook account (and I was savvy enough to do so) I cannot, in principle, support a company that shows such a cavalier attitude to the privacy of their user base.

If you are a Facebook user, I would strongly encourage you to check the settings in your account to make sure they are doing what you expect.  There is a useful tool at http://www.reclaimprivacy.org/
that will actually probe your Facebook account to show you how it looks to the outside world.  I would strongly encourage you to take the time to check yours.

There is also much bigger issues about Facebook. Its disregard for open standards, its walled garden approach that continually borrows steals ideas from all over the web, its willingness to do whatever it takes to keep users within the Facebook environment… I believe in the longer term will be bad for the Internet in general. That’s a much bigger issue and beyond the scope of this particular post, but when you add it all up, I can’t in all good faith continue to support a company that continually exhibits evil motives.  Facebook might be a useful service for many, and it might offer a certain convenience factor by bringing things into one place, but there is no doubt in my mind that Facebook will bad for the open web in the longer term.

Many people in the Internet community are so outraged by the continual display of unethical behaviour of Facebook and their CEO Mark Zuckerberg that here is an official “Quit Facebook Day” organised for May 31.

If you feel strongly enough about the approach that Facebook is taking, you may also decide to close your account to send a message to the company that you are not willing to use a service that shows such scant concern for their users privacy.

Here are just a few articles (of many!) about the recent changes that you may want to read if you need more information.  It’s worth getting the full story.

I realise that many people find Facebook very useful, and many will not want to take the extreme step of deleting their account, but I do hope you take the time to make sure your account is sharing what you think it is, and to even perhaps share some of this conversation with your students.

I am not a prostitute

In the past six days I’ve received six emails from various companies asking me if I’d please be so kind as to promote their services, talk about their products or otherwise just mention their wares in a blog post.  This is not a new thing – I’ve been getting more and more of these requests over the past 12 months – but the frequency of them has been increasing to the point where it now sometimes averages one a day.  In a weird sort of way, I guess this is an indication of some level of “success” in the blogosphere.

But to anyone considering asking me to be a schill for your wares, can I save you all some time?  The answer is no. This is a blog, not a brothel.

Look, I’m sure your products and services are fabulous, and I have no doubt that someone, somewhere may be interested in them.  I even kind of admire the fact that you “get” the power of new/social media enough to take the initiative of asking regular people like me to spruik the benefits of your products.  It’s nice that some of you couched it in terms of “take a look at what we do and if you think it’s a good thing, perhaps you can tell people about it”… that’s at least a respectful way of asking for promotional assistance.  But the answer is still no.  If I thought that a blogger was writing about something for any reasons other than their own, I would lose all faith in whatever they had to say, never being sure exactly where the line was between opinion and advertising. I’m used to being lied to in the traditional media, but I expect better from new media.

To that online university offering a 3 year degree program… it sounds like an ok idea, but no, I don’t want to include a link to your site on my site.  Actually, what is it with online universities? – I have had a ton of requests from quite a few of them, all asking me to include a “simple text-based link” to them, many even offering me reasonable cash payments to do so.  The answer is still no.

To that multimedia organisation that is “creating a portal into the soul of humanity by championing the selfless acts of others”… thanks for asking, but no.

To the flashcard company that wanted me to review their product on my blog, no, sorry.  Actually, after looking at what your product and educational philosophy is all about, it’s probably better I don’t write a review for you. Any tool that focuses on creating better ways to do rote learning is not something you want me to review, trust me.

To the other flashcard company who also wanted me to write about their “unique free services” in one of my upcoming posts, thanks but no thanks. Again, I’m less than impressed with services that help me learn better at the lowest end of Blooms taxonomy.

To the childrens’ book online website that was keen for me to write a review of their product in exchange for a 6 month premium subscription… nope.  Thanks for thinking of me, but asking me to blog about your product, and then telling me how much my readers would benefit from it is a less than subtle way of disguising how much you think you might benefit from it. Thanks, but again, no.

And to the commercial blog run by an online school that was interested in me reposting one of their recent posts, because it would “appeal to my readers”, thanks for thinking of us all, but no.  If the content is compelling enough, people will find it without my help.

Like I said, I appreciate being asked (although you can all stop asking! The answer is still no!) and I suppose it’s nice to think that other people might consider this blog to be worthy or influential enough to ask for a bit of free publicity.  If this happens to me, I can only imagine how many of these requests are made to other bloggers with some real influence!

The bottom line is that Betchablog is, and will remain, independent.  I’m not interested in writing about anything other than what I’m interested in writing about. I don’t take money in exchange for opinion. I won’t write about anyone’s product or service unless I want to do it for my own reasons.  I certainly won’t put links into my posts that I’ve been paid to put there.  I’m flattered to be asked, but even thinking about doing it makes me feel dirty.

Image: ‘Soho Street

Insightful

Thanks to yet another bloody good idea from my mate Mr Robbo, I was inspired to do the same thing he did…

This is a Wordle tag cloud that gives an overview of the general zeitgeist of Betchablog.  It analyses the words used in my blog posts and presents them in various sizes according to their frequency of use – the more often the word occurs, the bigger it appears – giving a nice insight into the main ideas contained in the text.  It’s a neat little tool, and I’ve used it to create word clouds for lots of text in the past, but oddly enough, I’d never actually used it to analyse this blog.  Overall, I think it’s a pretty good reflection of what gets talked about here (although I think the word “amazing” may be just slightly over-represented thanks to a certain recent blog post that mentioned it once or twice!) I’m not sure exactly just how far back in time it goes… I’m sure it didn’t analyse all the way back to when I started this blog, but either way, I like it!

If you want to try something similar, just point your browser at www.wordle.net and give it the URL for your blog (or any other chunk of text)  Thanks to a little bit of Java magic, in mere moments, you too can have a similarly beautiful typographic masterpiece!

Thanks for the suggestion @mrrobbo!

Getting an Ad-Free Ning

Quite a few teachers at our school are starting to see the advantages that a Ning community can offer.  We have been using Nings this year with several classes, and I’m finding them a really good, really easy way to get teachers interacting with technology in ways they might not have done otherwise.  Ning provides a visually rich, yet secure, environment for students to collaborate and socialise in, with a range of tools that are both useful and fun to use.  Because Ning offers many of the same kinds of tools that Facebook offers – discussion, video, pictures, chat – students find it easy to adapt to.  It also provides a few things that Facebook doesn’t – blogs, music and page customisation – so it allows teachers to modify the Ning toolsets to meet their individual educational needs.

Although Nings are proving incredibly useful for educators, the Google ads that appear on the right-hand menu are problematic for many educational purposes.  As good as the Ning environment is, with the ads in place (and in a new Ning the ads are often for inappropriate things like weight loss, online dating, work from home schemes, etc) Nings become largely unsuitable for school use.  While it’s possible to pay to remove the ads, the cost and red-tape involved in doing this in a school setting also make it less likely that educators will pursue it as an option.

Realising this, the good folk at Ning very generously offer an ad-free option for k-12 educators.  Simply ask to have the ads removed, and they will remove them for you.

The problem is that the instructions for getting the ads removed are not obvious. They require you to write to them and ask for it; a nice personal approach, but not just a matter of clicking a simple checkbox in the same way that Wikispaces offers ad-free wikis for educators.  With Ning, you need to know where to direct your request for ad removal, and that information is not all that obvious.  If you Google “removing ads from a ning” you will find instructions to do it, but I’ve found that the instructions can be out-of-date or do not always match what you see on your screen… it can be a little confusing.

I just applied this morning to have a Ning made ad-free, and managed to work my way through the confusion. If it helps anyone else, here’s how I did it.

  1. Go to http://help2.ning.com/AskUsAQuestion
  2. Fill in the URL for the Ning you want made ad-free
  3. From the “Select a Topic” dropdown, choose “General Question”
  4. In the “Describe your Question” field, write a short request for your ads to be removed…  as an example, this is what I wrote…  “Hello, I’d like to request that the above Ning be made ad-free for education. Our school is doing a collaborative project with our sister school in Japan and would like to use the Ning environment for these exchanges. Our students are aged between 13 and 17 and the Ning will be used only for educational purposes. Thanks!

They say it takes about 3-4 days to get approved.

Thanks Ning-guys!  Hope you get a great big serving of Internet karma as reward for your generosity!

Did You Know?

I wonder if Karl Fisch knew what he was starting when he made the original “Did You Know?” PowerPoint file for his staff at Arapahoe High School back in early 2007.  Fisch just wanted to share a few thoughts about a fast changing world with his fellow teachers, but by posting a copy to his blog it got picked up by others who found it fascinating, it went completely viral, has been made into several versions, has been remixed and modified many times, and its many incarnations have now been viewed many millions of times on YouTube and other online video sites.  All of this really speaks about the power of the web to help spread ideas…

In case you haven’t seen it here is version 4.0, the latest incarnation of “Did You Know?”

Nice work Karl.

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Cutting out the Middleman

One of the side effects of the new web is greatly increased disintermediation, or cutting out the middleman.  It seems that everywhere you look, entire industries are being turned upside down because the web makes it so easy for people to completely bypass the traditional “middlemen” that we all used to rely on so heavily.  Musicians are bypassing record labels and releasing their music directly to their fans.  Authors are bypassing publishers and using services like lulu.com to self publish. Homebuyers often know just as much about the real estate markets as the agents.  Ordinary people can buy and sell shares without the need to go though expensive stockbrokers.  In all of these processes (and many others like them) unless the middlemen add real value along the way, they face eventual extinction.  Why would you continue to pay someone to do something that you can just as easily do yourself?

This disintermediation seems to be obvious in three main areas… creation, distribution and promotion.

When it comes to creation, there are plenty of software tools now available that allow average people to create content in ways that were simply not even remotely possible 20, 10, even 5 years ago.  When I think back to some of the image manipulation processes that I had to master back in art school – I’m thinking of something like doing a four-colour separation of a photographic image – it was hugely expensive, time consuming and required highly specialised equipment.  Today, it’s a menu choice in Photoshop.

Same thing with making music.  Back in my younger years I played bass in a band, and to get studio time to even record a simple demo tape was horrendously expensive – hundreds of dollars an hour. The tape machines required to do multi track recording were huge beasts of things that cost many thousands of dollars to buy.  Today, I could get just as good quality using GarageBand, a program that comes free on every Macintosh computer.

Think about the changes involved in creating content for the web… not so long ago you needed a funny hat with a propeller on it just to make a website.  You needed to know about html coding, javascript, FTP servers, file types and naming conventions, plus a whole lot of other techno-geekery if you had any hope of putting a decent website online.  It was tricky, and the average person really struggled to do it.  But look what the new web, the read-write web, web 2.0 – call it what you will – has done to this process.  Blogs and wikis have changed things so dramatically that your 75 year old mum can now run a website using some free tool like Blogger or WordPress.  No need to hire an expensive web designer, or buy a lot of expensive gear.  Just sign up for a free account, click edit and start creating stuff. It’s a total turnaround.

The creation of nearly all media has undergone these same basic shifts.  Photographs, music, video, animations, text, page layout…  you name it, and the tools to produce it have gone digital and had their costs reduced so far as to be virtually zero.  Not all that many years ago, I can remember paying someone about $70 to use a desktop publishing program and a laser printer to design an A4 certificate… these days you wouldn’t even consider paying someone to do that. I wonder what that person is doing to make money these days?  I doubt he is still able to charge $70 to knock up a simple A4 document! Why?  Because most people can now do this sort of thing for themselves.  If you have the willingness to learn how to make something, the tools you need to create it are probably available at almost no cost.  Barrier one gone.

The second aspect is one of distribution.  Once you make something, you need to get it to people.  You only need to look at what peer-to-peer music distribution is doing to traditional models of distributing music to see that these are fundamental changes in how these things will work now and in the future. When people can consume music by downloading it, whether legally through services like iTunes or Amazon, or illegally using BitTorrenting or through sites like Pirate Bay or Kazaa, they are bypassing the old model of stamping the music onto disks, packing them in cardboard and shipping them on trucks to shops where people have to go to get them. It’s ridiculous when you think about it.  When music is digital, nothing more than a bunch of binary bits, the notion of committing them to a piece of plastic called a CD and then distributing it by trucking it all over the country is quite ludicrous.  Binary bits are digital… it makes far more sense to push them across the Internet. You don’t need to put a CDs in the mail just to give your friend a copy of a song you want them to hear, just transfer it directly to them over the web. Expand that idea out to be a band who distributes their music over the web to thousands of fans, and things take on a whole new slant. In the process of doing this of course, we potentially bypass a whole lot of middlemen – record labels, music publishers, CD producers, trucking companies, etc – unless they see the changes happening around them and respond to them quickly, these middlemen will be left high and dry, expertly servicing a market that no longer exists.  The Internet is totally reshaping whole industries, removing the friction from processes that were once held together by chains of middlemen. Barrier two gone.

The last aspect is promotion.  Telling people about stuff.  Getting the word out.  Marketing.  There was a time not so long ago that PR people wrote press releases about new information in the hope that journalists would pick up stories and help spread them. The flow of media was controlled by middlemen – journalists, newspapers, radio and TV. We heard what they wanted to tell us about. Our information was managed so that we paid attention to what the middlemen wanted us to know about, not necessarily what we were interested in. If your interests were out on the long tail, you were on your own.  Not any more.  Social media, social networks, they have allowed individuals to connect and share and converse and spread ideas far more efficiently and far faster than ever before. “Getting the word out” about something no longer requires a highly paid PR expert to write a finely honed press release just to get attention… a 15 year old kid with a webcam can be the next viral sensation on YouTube, generating millions of views at no cost with no middlemen.  Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, blogs… these tools of the new web – tools of ordinary people – are reshaping and redefining the way we move messages around and how we share and inform each other. In many cases you don’t need middlemen to do this, just the right tools and a bit of strategy. Barrier three gone.

I got thinking about this as I booked my own flights and accommodation for a trip to San Francisco this week.  After visiting the airline websites, shopping for the best deals and booking myself a seat, I then forwarded the confirmation email to a service called TripIt, which parsed the email and generated an online itinerary for me. I forwarded on the confirmation emails from the hotels and car rentals and TripIt easily worked it all into a well structured itinerary, complete with estimated travel times, links to confirm check-in times, even Google maps giving me directions from airports to hotels.  I’m not a travel agent, but I apparently don’t need to be… there’s an app for that, as they say.  If I WAS a travel agent I’d be extremely concerned for my future, and desperately looking for other ways to add extra value to my middleman role.

The real point though, is thinking about how all of this applies to education.  So many other fields have been affected by this massive shift away from needing middlemen – travel, music, publishing, public relations, product distribution, you name it.  But what about education?  Is there such a thing as educational middlemen?  If so, who are they? How will they add value in the future? How is the Internet likely to reshape the world of education?  Are educators really susceptible to the same shifts and changes that nearly every other industry is experiencing, or are we somehow different? Immune?  I doubt it.

Just like a travel agent who suddenly realises that she has hardly any clients booking flights through her, or the book publisher who finds that the last 10 bestsellers were all self published,  at what point will educators suddenly realise that the world has seriously shifted and the old rules that once worked so well no longer apply.

Who are the educational middlemen?