Reflections on 2007

It’s the time of year when we pause to reflect on the roads we’ve traveled, the chasms we’ve crossed, and the journey still ahead. Last week’s EdTechYearly got me thinking about the progress we’ve made this year. And yet, there are still those burning questions of whether we’re having much effect outside the world of educational technology. If you haven’t yet, you can share your thoughts on 2007 in this voicethread.

It's a reflection, see?These kinds of posts are usually done in list form. While I’m generally opposed to “top ten” lists, I will share a few of my highlights of 2007. These aren’t in any particular order:

Students and Social Networking

According to a study released by the National School Boards Association this year, 96% of students who have Internet access have used social networking tools. 41% of students with Internet access post new content at least once a week.That’s up from 12% in 2002. 30% of students with Internet access have their own blogs. In 2002, it was less than 1%. Kids know about email. They use it to communicate with their parents and their teachers. It’s old-school. With their friends, it’s instant messaging, SMS, Facebook, Myspace.

Students don’t communicate in the same ways that their parents and teachers do. As professionals in education, we have to be more aware of these tools and how they’re being used. Stop focusing on the negative examples and media-hyped anecdotes intended to scare us away from these technologies. Start using them in structured ways, both for instruction and professional development. Embrace the technologies by using closed systems that also provide privacy protections. Take baby steps with things like Moodle and WordPress.

Internet Filtering

Schools in the United States must filter Internet access in order to qualify for e-rate funding. Most schools are also very concerned that students will use the school’s Internet connection to access inappropriate or illegal content. This can be a public relations nightmare for a school as well as a legal one. If students are accidentally exposed to inappropriate materials at school, one might make the case that the school was negligent in protecting the student in loco parentis. As a result, most schools (mine included) err on the side of caution.

Our web filter compares each web request against a database. If the site is classified as belonging to a category that is blocked, the request is denied. The whole system relies on a company (Secure Computing, in our case) that reviews each web site and categorizes it.

This worked… umm… marginally well in 1995. Assuming that there aren’t many new web sites coming online, and that the web sites don’t change all that much, a single company could conceivably keep up. But according to Netcraft, there were 19.2 billion web pages in August, 2005, and 29.7 billion by February, 2007. I can’t imagine that the rate of growth on the web has decreased this year, which means that there are more than 13,000 new web pages added every minute. I’m pretty sure Secure Computing doesn’t have enough people to handle that kind of growth.

Now, to complicate things. The web is becoming increasingly interactive. You can add your comments to all kinds of pages. You can share ideas, video, audio, and all sorts of things that can’t be easily filtered. The interactive nature of these sites makes it nearly impossible for a filter to know whether the site contains objectionable material. So what do they do? They err on the side of caution. For us, that means there are thousands of sites that are blocked that probably shouldn’t be.

While we do have a review procedure for overriding bad filtering decisions, it’s clear that we need a better way to do this. Our old model of web filtering isn’t going to work. And I’m looking at 2008 as the year when we start seeing better solutions.

Personal Learning Networks

I’m not going to say too much about this, since I just blogged about it. But current technologies allow us to create our own personal learning networks. Use tools like blogs, Skype, twitter, delicious, podcasts, and ustream to connect with people who share similar interests, challenges, and ideas. Then, learn from each other.

One Laptop Per Child

Overhyped? Maybe. But the One Laptop Per Child project has actually produced a working computer. Sure, it’s $186, and you can’t actually buy one. But if you act quickly enough, you can buy two of them for $400, and you even get to keep one.

The real story here is that the OLPC project has ignited somewhat of a price war in the low end laptop business. There are at least three different projects offering laptops in the $300-400 price range, and this can only be good news for schools. If I can get a laptop for $400, how much does that make the desktop version? If we’re willing to make some tradeoffs, it may actually be possible to get to 1:1.

Digital Rights/Copyright

The RIAA has been busy this year. Their position is that music sales are declining because people are illegally sharing music online. To combat this growing problem, they’re suing just about everyone they can think of. Earlier this year, Jammie Thomas was ordered to pay $220,000 in damages for the 24 songs she was sharing online. Now, the RIAA is filing suit against people who rip their legally purchased CDs into mp3 files for their own use. Want to listen to your CDs on your mp3 player? Sorry, you have to re-purchase the music. (Update: it turns out the RIAA is not suing for ripping CDs, but they’re still saying mp3s are unauthorized copies).

Traditionally, the RIAA has made an extraordinary amount of money from music repurchases. People bought Sgt. Pepper in vinyl when it came out in 1967. A few years later, they bought it again in 8-track so they could play it in the car. A few years after that, the 8-track players were gone, and the cassette had to be purchased. Then, the extraordinary quality of the CD made owning this new format a must. But with the transition to online digital music, there’s no reason for repurchasing. The mp3 version actually has a substantially lower quality than the CD. So the RIAA needs a legal reason to force you to buy yet another copy.

It’s not all bad news on the copyright front, though. Wikipedia is moving to a Creative Commons license, which will make it easier to share content from that resource. The Cape Town Declaration, despite its criticisms, is aiming to open up access to educational resources without burdensome copyright and licensing restrictions. And the interactive nature of social networking technologies has made it easier for independent artists to be heard without having to sell their souls to the big media companies. It seems like the more the RIAA tightens its grip, the more willing people are to share content. That can only be good news to schools that are spending more than $100 per textbook. If we could collaboratively create and share educational content, we could save a fortune.