The debates and discussions following the announcement of Blackboard's intention to purchase two of the the education-targeted web conferencing companies have been fascinating. I was particularly interested in a recent exchange between Dr. Phil Ice (who also goes by the Twitter name @technostats) and Dr. Gardner Campbell (who goes by the Twitter name @GardnerCampbell).
Here is the link to the post that Phil wrote on how Blackboard's acquisition targets and the recently announced partnership with Barnes and Noble may be good for higher education, and Gardner's thoughtful questions on said same post.
What caught my eye is the notion that the education community needs to develop the technical acumen to create to our own non-commercial, open source, community developed platforms and solutions that provide an alternative to evil corporate platforms and solutions (my words, not Gardner's or Phil's. They are both way too polite to say that.)
Not surprisingly, i DO have an opinion on the subject.
I'm all for innovation in education. It's hard to expect that we creative types wouldn't want to tinker with customizing apps to make learning better. But innovation for the sake of innovation and exploration is different from leveraging innovation to create true solutions in education that come from the application of technologies in practice. This is more than creating pilot projects and experimental programs. This is about encourage adoption of innovation in the service of teaching and learning where the impact - and value - is demonstrable, measurable and sustainable.
NO way that even the most technically proficient faculty will create commercially viable software that is able to compete on features, benefits and user support and sales/licensing/upgrade programs...because UNIVERSITY FACULTY AND STAFF ARE NOT IN THE SOFTWARE BUSINESS! Educators are in the education "business" - teaching, service, research. It's what educators do. It's really, really important. But it's just part of the bigger picture.
This is not to say that you can't start a software company...or that you can't do a nice job creating a nice little product for a niche market. It's just that it can be very very hard to serve two masters - in this case, a business agenda AND a research agenda.
Reliable, industrial-strength sustainable software solutions need more than a good idea and great intentions (and associations whose membership dues go toward funding) to succeed. Yes, I know about Sakai and other very good platforms that are being created by and for educators. Yes, I know a lot about the value of UGC, personalized learning environments, apps, etc. Great ideas. Interesting pilot programs. Great ways to test hypotheses.
But academics' day jobs are not aimed at managing platforms, architecture, code strings, patches, and APIs. (Technical documentation? We don't need no stinkin' documentation...something I did hear from one of the big-dog Sakai participant institutions not too long ago.)
At the risk of making my academic buddies cranky with me, this needs to be said out loud - Education change agents need to be okay with the fact that reliable, well-supported and maintained commercial platforms and apps are not inherently evil. They are flippin' commodities! You should expect them to work. If they don't, you stop buying them and look for other alternatives. You need to expect that your vendors will work with you to make sure you are making good decisions. If you don't feel the love from your vendor, you need to find other alternatives where you do.I believe this so much that I'm dedicating much personal energy to developing capacity at WCET to cut through the hyperbole surrounding emerging tech developments so that educators can quit feeling yanked by every acquisition announcement and new product release. I would so much rather see educators' energy spent on figuring out how to use what we know about motivation, pedagogy, design, assessment and so on to provide learning solutions that engage and inspire.
Educators are certainly going to find themselves/ourselves cobbling together assets and apps. But that's more like packing the car for a trip down the info-highway, not like building the roadbeds and bridges and on/off ramps that you need to actually move your well-stocked vehicle from point A to point B. We've gotta quit knee-jerk reacting about the perceived cost of licensing and start thinking about TRUE costs of ownership, and then focus on leveraging our knowledge and skills to making education work better for our various stakeholders.
Sigh. I wish there was a way to take education research peeps on field trips to the many tech companies that will be surrounding us while in San Jose for the Sloan-C conference...I expect it would be eye-opening.