Should schools dive in and own their own tools?
DOPA bans social networking in public institutions (including schools) in the US under the guise of safety and control of information. Since May the act has been discussed on the US edublogosphere, with several educators this side of the pond getting jumpy, itchy or mildly wary of relying on external suppliers and hosters of content.
John has started the debate once more on two angles - open source tools and self-hosting of tools by local authorities - after stimulation from the excellent Booruch podcast. It has all made me think afresh on whether schools or states should spend time, money and effort on creating 'safe', self-owned products which do the job of Flickr, blog engines, Bubbleshare, YouTube, del.icio.us and so on.
Do we need to spend our effort on creating 'eduFlickrs' and self-hosted blogging platforms? My instant over-simplistic reaction is: no. The question of ownership of information might seem like a huge one when one stores one's writing on a blog hosted by Typepad or Blogger, for example, or one's photos on Flickr. It is a real question, too, not one of the made up examples or "imagine ifs..." that we are so fond of in education. For this very reason I think it's important to use the best of what is available in relation to the money we have to spend on it, and work at discussing the accompanying debate, whether that is ownership, copyright, intellectual copyright and plagiarism or "how do these sites make money?" (at Yester Primary School they are discussing just this question, and I hope to be able to head along there and help them come to the answer).
But is what we right online any more important than what we
right write in school jotters, which end up binned, lost, water-logged or forgotten? Does writing some schoolwork or thought online make it worth so much more than the jotter that we must, at all costs, keep it? What is it about writing or publishing images and artwork online that seems to make the issue of who owns that virtual piece of paper more important than who owns/loses/keeps the school jotter?
Where owning information is
This still did not stop me recommending to East Lothian that they use WordPress MultiUser, hosting the content of all their blogs, at least, on their own dedicated server, but the aims had nothing to do with security, safety or "owning the information". Hosting blogs on WPMU does nothing to help in any of these scenarios, but does help marketing (you can better analyse the impact of what you are doing, spot new trends, predict what plugins might be popular), troubleshooting (a double-edged sword since we are relying on fewer middlemen for help, but still work within the limits of our own expertise) and in trying to create a more coherent community (we're back to marketing, effectively, and how the information on user habits can help push community where it might not have existed beforehand). In East Lothian we are beginning to do this pretty well ;-)
Glow, for that matter, the national education intranet in Scotland, will offer some degree of extra security to the mix. The people in it are centrally registered users and therefore traceable, though I don't know how much tracing will go on; during the Glow trials there were incidents of 'minor' online bullying but no effort made by teachers or administrators to pursue it while the iron was hot. At the end of the day, owning the servers on which the content is stored will not stop predatory bullying, 99.9% of which comes not from the wild west of the www, but from within your schools, your classrooms. If we can get that little human glitch ironed out (I don't know if we ever will) then Glow-hosted blogs would be a real step in the right direction for increased new technology use by the next part in the equation, the third-generation of more risk-averse teacher ICT users.
+ better marketing
+ better community finding and creating
= breaking down of our edublogosphere pareto principle.
Where not having to host the information is better
To go back to the East Lothian social media project, most of the other tools we are recommending our users to engage with involve hosting material on someone else's servers: del.icio.us, Bubbleshare, Flickr, Quintura and PageFlakes, for example. It's simply not worth our time, effort and money to attempt to recreate these pretty damned good tools just so that we can host them on our servers. At the moment I'd recommend the continued hosting of blogs in East Lothian since most people use a blog as their principle place of publishing news, artwork, video and so on (even if it's not hosted directly on it all of the time). But over the next year and beyond the blog in its current form will morph and many more people will live their online publishing life on non-textual tools such as YouTube (quelle surprise), Flickr and the forthcoming medium of IPTV.
So what's the difference between hosting blogs and hosting everything else? Money. Well, bandwidth to be more precise. Just as YouTube began to get exponential last May my LesBlogs buddy Peter was working out their bandwidth costs at around $1 million per day, with 15 million video downloads (each video about 3.5 minutes long). Considering that most educational content is longer than that and even with fewer users, I think most Local Authorities and even our dear Executive would baulk at a service which would drain 000,000s of pounds from the public purse - with no business model allowed to support it.
Self-hosted video and images? At the moment it doesn't make financial sense when aggregated costs and economies of scale from the big guys and venture capitalists help cushion the blow.
So if we're stuck with these guys for practical reasons, surely we'll get screwed on ethical ones? I'd say less of the conspiracy theory and more of the research. It's not in the interest of these companies to ignore the educational market. It's for that reason, perhaps, that the CEOs of PageFlakes, Quintura, Wikispaces, PBWiki and many other Live Web cos. are in fairly regular contact with me and other edubloggers to find out what would make their products better for education. I know that they keep an eye on Technorati watchlists of their product names to leap in and grab our feedback and improve their products.
Why? Because their teen and pre-teen customers of today are their ad revenues of tomorrow. Do I want a product without ads for my kids? Yes. Do I mind if they are facing advertising once they leave school and enter the world of work? No, because advertising is part of the makeup of their lives on MySpace, Bebo and the telly (do they still do that?) - avoiding a cool tool on the basis of advertising is cutting our collective nose off to spite our faces.
Rugs and feet
Will developers purposefully pull the rug from under their customers' feet? No, not if the business model is solid and they are making money. If a company changes the rules it set out with at the beginning (or tries a Google "we'll keep Google Earth free for the moment") then they are screwed for the long haul. And then take a look at the technologies mentioned in this blog post. Every one has an open API and a bit of magic which makes it what it is (that's why we might like PageFlakes better than Netvibes, Bubbleshare better than Flickr and so on). These companies are more or less open - open enough for most geeks - and provide a business model which reassures us they will be around for long enough.
Balancing risk, time, effort, development, skills and final product
Moreover, these 'open private' companies provide refined products which are generally quick to set up and use, and easy to get a backup from. Should they go bust or withdraw a service, there's nothing to stop regular users exporting the content and making a switch. Compared to some of the most popular open source apps, such as Moodle mentioned by Peter in the Booruch podcast, setup is a doddle and more accessible for the masses. So, my tuppence worth to John and others' points on open source and self-hosting might be summarised something like this:
- Does hosting offer a better chance to create a community?
- Does hosting offer better safety for kids? (Probably not)
- Does open source version of this provide the same experience AND more longevity (look at the business model, not the 'open sourceness' of the app - companies genuinely won't go out of their way to piss their customers off, especially the younger ones)
- Do the vast majority of users care if the final product is open source or not, hosted by the institution or not? (Audacity happens to be better than Windows Media for most people, but most people don't know it's open source and will not contribute to the creation of the product).
- Will most users be able to contribute to the open source product, or will the open source product be fed into by a minority of the group using it (thus making it quasi proprietary)?
The questions are, hopefully, provocative. I personally get fed up with the open source versus everything else debate and see a more complex mélange leading to success, but wonder whether some of the companies I've mentioned have superior venture capital, expertise and customer feedback to do the job better. Ouch. Release the spiders!