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