Monday, August 10, 2009

Commercial Influence at Edubloggercon East

We had a great day at Edubloggercon East just before the Building Learning Communities conference. Thanks again (and again) to the November Learning team for donating space and for all of their help with the event. You can find links to our sessions here.

We had about 50 participants which included some folks associated with a variety of vendors. At the end of the conference, I brought up the concern I have with keeping Edubloggercon free of commercial influences. Andy Pethan of Alight Learning sent me a very thoughtful and thought provoking email in response to my comments. I asked Andy's permission to reprint his email here and allow the community to respond. He graciously agreed to open up his comments to all of us. I look forward to reading your thoughts. I'm just back from vacation and am still gathering mine.

My name is Andy Pethan, a student at Olin College and one of the people working on the software startup Alight Learning. As someone who is interested in K12 ed-tech both personally and professionally, I wanted to clarify your perspective on the commercial influence at events like EBC.

Near the end of the conference Tuesday, you mentioned your concern about the purity of the event. Though you did not ask anyone to stop coming, it seemed clear that there was some kind of line that was being pushed. At one extreme, there may be something like the Pearson influx that I heard had happened a year or two ago, representing the attempt of a company trying to turn the day into a sales pitch (this story is all hearsay for me, but if this is not what happened one could imagine something like this). At the other extreme would be asking anyone who can increase their revenues by learning from and contributing to the event to stop coming. Since these entrepreneurs, developers, consultants, and salespeople base their livelihood around making better products, positioning products more usefully, and training teachers and administrators on the use and large scale implementation of these products, it would seem silly to cut them off from the educators who care most about getting good products into schools with a useful and meaningful application. Assuming that either extreme is bad for the community, where does the line get drawn? As a software developer and eventually a salesman (when we have a product done enough to sell), what behavioral guidelines should I be considering?

I want to reiterate my interest in attending events like EBC and EduCon. From only two of these events, I personally have learned more about the real problems faced in introducing change to schools and the strong and weak points of the tools teachers are starting to use. Small insights at these events may lead our team down very different development paths, and in fact does (we started yet another redesign of a significant portion of our app yesterday, partially from problems recognized at EBCE). I can guarantee that our product will be much more useful to schools as a direct result of listening to and asking questions of all the different people that attend these events, and that someday our team will be able to make a significant impact on the challenges schools face. The perspective I want to hear from you, and eventually all the teachers/ed-tech specialists/admins/employees, is where are the lines between co-design, empathy, and beneficial marketing vs. product hawking and spam?

If you have time to give your thoughts, I am very interested in hearing them. If I attend future events like this, I want to be a fully contributing teacher and learner, not an unwanted pest or someone afraid to talk openly. This message was sent preemptively in the hopes that the issue would be more of a discussion right now instead of becoming a much larger problem in the future, and I think we both recognize the potentially bad path things are heading down if left unaddressed. Thanks for your time,

Andy Pethan

Alight Learning / Olin College


Anonymous said...

Just remember that his primary goal, and don't let him tell you otherwise, is to find a way to monetize "change in schools". I don't buy it.

Let's see classroom teachers be the focus. Folks like him are welcome, but it is absolutely worth checking his motives.


Cheryl Oakes said...

I can comment on a couple of sides to this increasingly complex dodecahedron. Last year, I was paid an honorarium by Pearson, to be part of a panel discussing some prescribed questions as they prepare to be a contributing member of the "now" 21st Century. For me it was an honor to be part of that conversation. We were given questions, we were NOT given the answers. In fact, the dozen or so people involved in the conversation represented many types of educators in all fields. This year, I had the absolute delight to meet Andy at the session with David Truss. I learned what Andy and his team are about. (Had I know he was from Olin I would have picked his brain more! I have a student who wants to attend that college.) But more importantly, I watched Andy and a team member listening and taking notes as people in the room responded to David Truss and how we educators provide information to our peers. Alice Barr and I smiled and agreed that Andy and his team GET IT! They should they are the IT! They are the reason we all are pushing for things to happen with our students. They are the team who will make the "apps" or "programs" that the mainstream teacher can use. I am honored that they chose to be part of our conversation. I would also commend ePals, the MIT chatroom folks and Glogster for being at the EdubloggerCon East. Anytime we have the ear, the minds, the wisdom of the 'vendors' our agenda is moved to the front. Not that I have an agenda, but I certainly want this movement to go mainstream and I think our vendors can help that cause. What do others think? Cheryl Oakes

Steve Hargadon said...

Good topic.

I can tell you how I've dealt with this so far at the main EduBloggerCon and at Classroom 2.0: I encourage participation by individuals representing commercial entities, but ask that they participate as individuals and not as representatives of their companies.

I think the good guys and gals are quite willing to play by these rules, and there have been a lot of great contributions by some of these individuals--Maggie Tsai from Diigo, Adam Frey from Wikispaces, etc. I personally want to be careful that we don't exclude folks who are truly trying to make a difference just because they are part of a commercial company.

The Pearson debacle aside, I think in general we're doing a good job with keeping a balance here.

Liz--heard great comments about EBC East. Great work!

Jim Walker said...

Software developers should be able to make a living doing something that benefits us all. I was happy to see Golgster and Alight at Edubloggercon. It seemed they were there more to see how we are using their products or gaining information to make it more useful to educators. I just don't want Edubloggercon to become a vendors showcase.
The discussions around firewalls and acceptable use need to continue and involve parents, students, administrators and teacher.
Maybe monetizing "change in schools" is the way to get it to happen. Just as the open source community is successful an open source education community could force the education "system" out of business.

Magistra M said...

I did have some concerns about about the commercialization of conferences and the presence of vendors at EBCE. What I most appreciate about Andy's perspective is that he was there to share information about his product but also to listen and make changes that reflect concerns of educators. In the same vein, I wonder about the number of education consultants who attend conferences. When a vendor is selling a product, it's easy to say "no, I don't need that for my class" or "yes, tell me more." I was struck by the consultants who "sell" inspiration, trainings, or themselves as leaders. Their input may be valuable, but seemed more directed at administrators or entire districts and not to individual classroom teachers. It seems that there are so many classroom educators who have so much to share, but they don't have as great a presence at workshops and conferences as I would like to see.

colleenk said...

I disagree with Anonymous and it saddens me to see that kind of thinking still exists. I have attended conferences as both an educator and a vendor. When I transitioned from biotech to education, I provided science programs to child care centers and after school clubs. My main priority was teaching children and sharing my love of all things science. I put my heart and soul into perfecting my classes and making my activities engaging. However, I was paid to teach those classes and that made me a vendor. It didn't matter that I had taught college and that I was trying to enter K-12 education or that I had a wealth of information I was willing to share. I was an outsider and was, at times, treated with disdain and disrespect. The term, vendor, is unfairly connected with exploitation, greed, and capitalism; none of which correctly characterized my own motivation.

When I attend conferences today, I have two main goals. The first is to find something of value I can use directly in my classroom; something that will help me become a better teacher. The second is to learn something that will help me be a better educational designer. I both teach and design for profit; not tremendous profit, but I am paid for the work I do. Does that negate my presence at educational conferences? I don't think so. I bring expertise in mathematics, science, and programming, 15 years of teaching experience, and general ed tech knowledge. More importantly, I bring passion and a strong desire to improve children's learning experiences. Perhaps today's vendors possess similar qualities.

I think Andy is absolutely right about the importance of teacher feedback. The only reason I've improved both as a teacher and as a designer is that I am fortunate enough to interact with classroom teachers; through my PLN, through email correspondence from my website visitors, and at conferences like BLC and Educon. Teachers in my PLN beta test my activities and give constructive criticism. They take time to consult with me when I have a question and provide new ideas to develop. If I was not welcomed into the educational community, I would not be half the teacher I am today.

So my vote goes to inclusion. Educational products and services play a tremendous role in today's classrooms. The fact that we even have the opportunity to interact with developers is amazing. This is the first time teachers truly have a say in the development of the products they use with their students. I echo Cheryl's sentiment. Let's embrace this opportunity and see where it takes us.

Dave Chamberlain said...

The problem that I see is that it is easy to cross the line going from a grassroots organization/conference to something else entirely. I have no problem with product developers attending, and even think there is a place for them to talk about their products. Having real educational technology users give input is important for the developer, and having your input count is important for the user.

What I would want to avoid is risking having a breakout session be an ad for a product. I've been to too many conferences where I would attend a session that sounded great, a problem would be presented and possible solutions expressed then BANG, you're told about a single product that can solve all of your problems because the session was being presented by a vendor.

I put far more stock into hearing information from a peer than I do a sales pitch, no matter how well-intended.

Beth Knittle said...

At first I was surprised to see 'commercial' participation. But I found I enjoyed my interactions with those present. There was no sales pitch, they learned from us and I from them. They were general conversations about what we would like to see in our classrooms. And I had an opportunity to express what I liked and did not like in their products. In the future they may be making money based on what they gleaned but maybe we will get a product more to what we need and want to use.

Dave mentioned he puts more stock in a peer's review of a product then a sales pitch. I could not agree more. I avoid vendor run sessions at conferences, and the exhibit floor. All the products I have been involved in purchasing have been through fellow teacher recommendation or my own trial and error with the beta version.

If vendor participation continues like it did at EBCE09 then I am for it. If it becomes vendor centered, then we may need to rethink things.

Paul Bogush said...

Can some educational events be more pure than others? At an edubloggercon I expect a more "pure" educational experience. Edubloggercons precede larger conferences. Most people at the edubloggercons attend the larger paid conference(not me $$;). Can't just one day be "pure?" In two sessions that I counted 25% of the attendees were there representing a business. When "venders" see that attending is an easy way to do market research, how high will the percentage go? I am also worried about the "line." Yes, at EBCE the venders might have happened to have been all nice folks with all nice products...but where's the line? Maybe the venders at EBCE were there because they care about improving education first, and making money second, but I don't think we can ignore the reality that the person sitting next to me was there to try to make more money off of what I said...I would like to turn to a person sitting near me and talk about how the ideas of the presenter/group might play out in my classrooms--not in their software program. I joked with someone at the smackdown after watching people get up and essentially pitch their product that maybe I should get up and present my business' website.
For as "pure" as their intentions might be I would rather spend a day talking with teachers, not talking with someone who is trying to improve their product, and yes...make money off of ideas that I might give. So Andy, it would seem silly to cut you off from the educators who care most about getting good products into schools with a useful and meaningful application. That's why I suggest emailing me and I will gladly give you my opinion. Three other venders this summer have contacted me asking to view their product and give them feedback during a short interview. They stated their intentions upfront, and I was happy to assist.

@Cheryl About "having the ears of the venders..." I wouldn't have a problem with them setting up booths and they can call me over and they can have my head and I would have their ear...but weren't they able to do that at the BLC?

Doesn't seem so bad to keep just one single day pure, but then again I have been accused of living in a schooltopia, and maybe mixing in entrepreneurs, developers, consultants, and salespeople who are trying to make a profitable product is the reality and having empathy is a "21st Century Skill" I have to learn.

By the way Andy, I think the answer to your question "...where are the lines between co-design, empathy..." I think empathy would be when I show concern for a struggling entrepreneur and help them out with free information, co-design would be when you pay me a % of the sales ;)

After re-reading what I wrote, just wanted to state that I am not against venders infiltrating sessions at other conferences--I expect it--I am just for keeping EBC "pure."

Lee Kolbert said...

Hi LIz,
Great topic for discussion. I also blogged about this very thing here:

I think that EBCe was terrific and the corporate participation was not only appropriate but important. It's vital to the success of their products that they listen to their end-users; us. It's vital to us; their end-users that we be listened to. A setting like EBC is the perfect setting to have those conversations.

Alfred Thompson said...

I've been attending education blogger meet ups and tweet ups for some time. And of course I work for a large company that sells to schools. We also give away a lot of free software to schools which I more of what I do. :-)

I see my role there as being a listener. I come to learn. I am pretty much incapable of completely keeping my mouth shut as those who know me are well aware. So if there is a product I think will help, even if the company I work for makes it, I’ll probably say so. I’m not sure that makes me a bad person. Generally when I attend an event like this (sorry I missed this one) I wear a logo shirt. Not because I am there as an official representative of the company but ne cause I don’t want to appear to be hiding that affiliation. I see that as important transparency on my part. If people choose to discount what I say based on who I work for I would rather than than be seen as not being open about that affiliation.

So I try to be open and honest about who I am, who I work for and what my role in that company (Microsoft BTW) is. I do attend primarily as an individual but some people are going to see me as a representative of the company I work for and that is inevitable and unavoidable. A teacher is going to be seen as representing their school and their union (assuming they belong to one) even if they disagree with those organizations. That is human nature. The best we can do is be open about affiliations and as unbiased and honest in how we participate.

I see EduBloggerCon and other conferences (and unconferences) as valuable learning events. I am not sure what keeping them “pure” would be good for other than preventing companies from understanding the needs, goals, issues and what not of edu bloggers. And that just doesn’t seem helpful to anyone.

David Truss said...

I am pro-advertising and commercialization -even in schools! My caveat is that it is on 'our terms'!

I'm not interested in seeing EduGloggsterCon any time soon, but I liked the opportunity to sit with the guy from Glogster and say, 'Hey, love your tool, but you've got to remove links to racy content from the educational side before I can plug your product with teachers."

Furthermore, if a company wants to buy us lunch... go right ahead, we can say 'Thanks insert-name-here' after the meal, but we don't have to give them airtime for doing so... again it is about our terms, and both parties need to be up-front about it.

The thing is, if we aren't careful Edubloggercon could be swarmed by companies as they don't have to pay for a booth to participate. Steve's words sit really well with me, "I encourage participation by individuals representing commercial entities, but ask that they participate as individuals and not as representatives of their companies."

I saw no problem with commercial presence this year until I came home and got an email that started like this:
"It was nice to meet you at Edubloggercon. I just wanted to offer myself if you had any questions regarding yolink..."
This form of unsolicited self-promotion is not something I signed up for and I think it takes away from the essence of what this wonderful 'unconference' is all about!

Paul Bogush said...

@David I actually welcomed the email because I can deal with it on my terms. If they get up and do a product demo I am stuck watching with no way out. If they email me then I choose whether to respond or delete.
When the person you wrote about presented at EBCE I tuned out because of the commercial nature of it and because I was being forced to watch--after receiving the email I choose to check out the product and it it is pretty niffy.
I see the email as being able to deal with it on "my terms." When they run a session or even present during a smackdown it is on their terms.

Liz B Davis said...

Thank you to everyone for all of your comments. I'm so happy that Andy was willing to open up his letter to everyone. I feel you have all touched on some aspect of how I feel about this. It is great to see the community expressing such a wide range of opinions. I really appreciate the time everyone has taken to thoughtfully contribute to this discussion.

I was thinking about this on my run this morning and I ultimately feel that Edubloggercon is an UNconference and unconferences are shaped by the people who attend. I certainly would not be willing to bar anyone from attending. I would agree with Steve that vendors should come as individuals who are there to learn, not to sell. That is not to say they don't also have something to teach us.

With regard to vendors leading sessions, I would just ask that they are transparent about their purposes. At an EBC we vote with our feet. If a vendor wants to offer a session about their product, I just ask that they clearly explain to the group that that is what they are doing. No one is forced to attend any of the sessions. I guess the problem would come if that forced out other potential sessions during that time block. We could create a separate strand for vendors, but then I wouldn't want to encourage vendor presentations. This gets tricky.

Paul - I feel like the Smackdown is the best place for a vendor to show his/her product. It is a session that is all about tools and it is limited to 3 minutes per tool. That doesn't bother me. But I do agree with you that EBC has a special role to play in the world of conferences and vendor participation feels different there than it does elsewhere.

I don't like the idea that vendors are following up EBCE by soliciting the attendees. I got a call at home from the folks at Fablevision after the constructivist celebration at NECC. That bugged me because I don't ever like to be called at home and I don't like my phone number being shared that way. Perhaps that is something we should make clear next year, since we do include our email addresses on the attending list.

This is all great food for thought. Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to the discussion.

Bud Hunt said...

Purity is relative. Teachers have agendas, too. Steve Hargadon, a guy I trust and consider a colleague, a collaborator, and a teacher, the guy who created the framework for the EduBloggerCon events and many other useful tools and communities, is a "vendor," if we are only giving a single label to folks.

Let's not pretend that teachers or educators are free from bias or are "pure" in any sense. We all wear multiple hats and play multiple roles. That's okay. That we get together is a good thing.