January 24, 2008

Economist debate: The finale

  Walk to work (London) 
  Originally uploaded by Edublogger

Well, the Economist debate has been an eye-opener, well beyond the rhetoric such a forum encourages and into the very meaning of the social web for those who use it. The closing arguments have now been posted, but the debate flows on and new elements from principal contributors are being added until tomorrow.

I am growing to heavily resent the implication from both the Opponent and the Moderator that any online debate was 'bound to' fall in favour of social networking as a changemaker in educational methods thanks to or because of the (online) method of debate. I just think the argument is a no-brainer and that's why it will win.

I also think it's interesting to see that more support is given to the notion in the comment space than the one-click vote would imply. Are nay-sayers simply coming with their prejudice, voting and not interacting with the debate, lest their stalwart viewpoint be changed? Certainly, that wouldn't be surprising given the nature of most face-to-face interactions educators, workshop leaders and social media consultants are having with those who just want things to say the same.

If online debates are only ever going to attract liberal and connected types to participate, even when they are on The Economist.com, then what does that say about the future of politics and governance? The digital divide is clearly not between poor and rich, the haves and have-nots, the intelligent and the less-so. It's about those who choose to interact with others and those who do not see the point of such connections and interactions. Politics, arguably, falls along the same lines. Those who care rise to control the messages, those who don't care just complain about it.

The picture I snapped today as I passed the Economist offices in London maybe sums this juxtaposition up: the "fox tramp" in front of the conservative rich power.

Please do cast your vote and leave a comment so that we see why people voted the way they did. I'm looking forward to having some time to draw this debate out through the pages and pages of comments left by readers.


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I have to agree, and extend your discussion - if I look at the majority of "pro" comments you can see that the participants have read at least some of the debate. A similar look at the "con" indicates that the majority have not even bothered to read Dr. Bugeja's posts.

I'll suggest two possibilities:

One: Those voting "pro" understand these technologies and how they work. They tend to understand that this is a conversation and a learning experience. Those voting "con" often do not understand this technology, they are no more interacting than if they sent a telegram. One of the major themes of the "con" posts is that "Facebook and MySpace cannot be educational tools." It does not matter that on every page commenters are pointing out, explaining clearly, that SNS is hardly limited to "Facebook and MySpace." It does not even matter if we point out that right there, on Economist.com, we have created a social network and that it would be polite to display a few social skills and read/listen. They have come with closed minds borne of ignorance of the topic they are voting on/discussing.

Two: This digital divide is surely about power. Either you are willing to connect, to listen, to not demand credentials before allowing someone to speak... or, you believe that knowledge is a fixed and absolute thing, and only those with authority are allowed to transmit it. In this case, speaking to the likes of you and me is a waste of time - they will simply hand us a failing grade and go back to the lecture hall podium.

By this I do not mean to attack all who say "con," there have been some lucid arguments and valid concerns raised. But if I look at a random ten pages or so of debate, the split you describe becomes apparent.


Well done Ewan and on this basis Word Press or Blogger or some other really useful social networking tool should be available to every pupil and teacher.. from tomorrow .. mmm they are but not on the schools' networks. They are blocked.

We have had lots of complaints in the last month that Scottish Local Authorities are blocking Blogger. I think we may have the same challenge with Wordpress but Bobby is doing a quick survey to see if we can find a short term solution for our computing teachers http://sqacomputing.blogspot.com/2008/01/access-problems-to-blog.html
Actually it has been happening in last two or three months I guess a new version of the filtering software is being rolled out and its blocking out the few authorities who had access to blogger, flickr etc Even had one complaining that feedreaders had suddenly been blocked.

The lights are going out all over Europe etc

How do we get from here to where we want to be ? I know the answer is GLOW but what can we do in meantime.

We're working with all LAs today and tomorrow on showing what's possible - I'm not convinced that we will win everyone over, of course, in just two days.

I wouldn't use Blogger, for what it's worth, because of the next blog button. However, I find it ridiculous to block any other format of blog. It's banning a technology instead of its content.

"banning a technology instead of its content" - I appreciate this. In the US schools block almost everything. I have schools which refuse to allow things like Google Earth or software that supports those with reading issues. Everything is blocked because educators refuse to teach students how to engage with the world. Rather than teach evaluation, appropriateness, discernment, discretion - skills that will be essential to the lifespan learning these students need to survive - schools block, bury their heads, and complain about students' inappropriate behaviors.

It is funny - if the technology is bad because the content is bad, we must ban books - after all, many books are pornographic. We must ban speech - after all, there is hate speech in the world. we must ban paper - after all, paper is often used to spread lies. Why I've even seen inappropriate things on chalkboards, better get rid of that technology as well.

I purposefully haven't been following this, but...

"If online debates are only ever going to attract liberal and connected types to participate, even when they are on The Economist.com, then what does that say about the future of politics and governance?"

Well, the logic seems to be that if you participate in an informed debate, you are labeled a liberal or 'connected type'. This logic means that if you take medication, you will get sick.

I've often been labeled as a liberal, myself, but I'm not. I'm a realist. So those broad strokes do not apply as often as the labelers seem to want them to.

Its also why I don't worry too much about what 'experts' think. The digital divide isn't something that any group of people, no matter how well intentioned, can solve. It is a complicated issue, and has many faces around the world (instead of in a few countries). Most people in debate on such things bring only a sliver of a perspective with them, which they are lauded for...

Good picture, by the way. Fav'd.

Ewan, in terms of your resentment: your role was set up so that any victory by you would be discounted: on top of the "bound to win" arguments like "it's on a social networkish technology" and "Economist readers are all so forward-thinking and understand technology" rhetoric, the debate was obviously stacked in the pro side's favor: all four guest participants made excellent generally-”pro” posts, and while the Moderator's closing statement did pretty much say "I really hope more people will vote 'con'", it also included primarily passionately-pro quotes.

Did you expect anything different going in?

Even with all that, the needle moved from the 70/30 pro position you talked about in your previous post to 63/37 (where it’s been hovering and will probably end up).

I totally agree the argument should be a no-brainer.

Why do you think the trend went against you during the debate?

I was bothered that it seemed that few practitioners were included in the debate comments. Often I felt that those who are not working with teens were looking at their own experiences from which to frame their decisions as to what today's youth need rather than what WORKS with today's youth. Why not let the students interject! I have one student who wrote a piece on social networking is who is qualified.

I was a bit bothered by the format (and the fact that I had to look at the debate in INternet explorer because of firefox problems.)

;-) Maybe one day I'll make it to your reader list. But, you can't read everyone, can you!

Hi Vicki,
You're very much on my RSS reading list, Vicki. But the format and time schedules to write pieces (on top of the day job) meant that it was impossible to bring in every segment of debate from the forum, much of which was really good.

Hi Vicki,
You're very much on my RSS reading list, Vicki. But the format and time schedules to write pieces (on top of the day job) meant that it was impossible to bring in every segment of debate from the forum, much of which was really good.

Hi Jon,

I think the argument swung down against me as the debate rumbled on, maybe because those who take longer to get online then voted or maybe because the opposition's rightful hesitations were convincing.

Unfortunately, though, it's not an issue that can be debated like this really. It's not black and white. It's grey, and both arguments had concerns and opportunities that both Michael and I take in our stride day-to-day as we BOTH advocate the use of new technologies.

When arguments are as grey as this, it's no wonder it didn't become 50:50.

I certainly agree about the difficulties of debating in this format; the lack of time to craft a response to the others' arguments and challenges in incorporating participant feedback affected both sides equally, but I think overall had the effect of making it look like you weren't dealing with valid objections. Particularly when the tone took a turn for the worse in the comments section (the Moderator could have been a lot more proactive there), this probably helped the opposition. The trend their direction seemed to start sometime around the rebuttal.

In retrospect, it might have been better to do another rapid iteration using Twitter -- or demonstrate another use of social networking technologies for teaching and learning. This might also have eased the time crunch.

Another thing I noticed, consistent with Vicki's point about key stakeholders being marginalized: you mentioned teachers, students, and parents 23 times in your opening, only 5 in your rebuttal, and then back up to 11 in your closing [6 of which were in laundry lists of stakeholders]. The Moderator spoke for a lot of people when he endorsed the concern about technologies squeezing out the human factor. There may not been enough people in your rebuttal to reassure voters making up their mind at that point concerned about this.

> When arguments are as grey as this, it's no wonder it didn't become 50:50

I just don't see why the argument should be grey. These technologies really are revolutionary and significant positive results have already been demonstrated. What's the issue?

In any case, the pro side should have been more effective at advocating their cause by social and educational networking and I would have expected their lead to increase over time. A quick note on the wall of some of the Facebook or MySpace groups could have brought in a lot of people inclined to vote pro -- and provide perspectives that were otherwise missing. Or if things had made the lap to the tech blogosphere, the Slashdot effect might have kicked in, and they might well have have voted 95% pro. del.icio.us is a fascinating lens for the debate; it looks there like somebody with a respected opinion is saying no, and the advocate is saying "I'm not so sure these are for everybody".

Not sure how many votes there actually were (an excellent open question from BennyGun in the participant comments) but any of these could have had an influence. Hopefully the bastion of transparency The Economist will release this information :-)

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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