My Growing Concerns About Mainstream Education Blogs
I don’t typically go on rants here on the blog. I’ve occasionally voiced frustration about political developments, subpar video sharing sites dedicated to education, or questioned the heralding of large Bill Gates-backed video learning projects, but when it comes to calling out other education blogs, I’m typically quiet. Why? Well, for starters, it usually invites a host of negative or critical comments on my own work, which engenders the type of “sour grapes” responses that make me look jealous of others’ success. This in turn can make it quite easy for anyone, close colleagues and acquaintances included, to conclude that Ben Rimes is a rather crotchety, pessimistic, jerk that would rather whine about others than rise to the occasion. I suppose that today, I’ll have to accept those likely outcomes, as this weekend a number of musings, thoughts, and ramblings came together for me. Here are a few of my growing concerns with the mainstream education blogging space.
Drinking From the Firehose is Apparently the Popular Choice
I get listed on some of the spammy/SEO-like posts put out by various entities that go by titles that are all basic permutations and assemblages of the words “College, Online, Best, Helper, Ranking, Success”. When I browse through those lists there are a lot of great reflective blogs, and each list seems to be slightly different as times passes. There are a few blogs though that seem to seize an inordinate chunk of the edublogger zeitgeist; the blogs that have anywhere between 5 to 15 posts a day, and average no more than one or two paragraphs per posting. They’re the kind of blogs that value quantity over quality, seem to garner a hefty amount of Tweets, Pins, and Facebook postings, and yet when you visit them they seem like little more than rehashed press releases with little to no value added. Don’t get me wrong, everyone needs to drink from the firehose every now and then after stumbling across the digital wastelands of the internet, but when the first comments on your blog post are basically commenting on how poor the service you’re mentioning is, and can only say “it’s a start I suppose”, maybe you should step back and take a bit more time digging into the content you’re posting, and turn that firehose into a manageable garden spigot better suited to cultivating and feeding reflective learning.
Back Patting is Great, But We Need to Grow
Many blog posts I see bouncing around the Twittersphere are usually high spirited “Huzzah-inducing happy posts”. There’s nothing wrong with that, and certainly we need to share some positivity, but I don’t see a lot of the good critical stuff happening in smaller circles in the wider mainstream education blogs. Tom Woodward is probably my best example of how to “Lose Friends and Alienate People” when it comes to regular critical blog posts that might contain explicit lyrics or criticisms of large corporations taking over education. Tom usually makes some pretty great reflective critical comments where others dare not (myself included mostly) when it comes to accurately pointing out what we should really be focused on in education. I love the great big circle hugs, inside jokes, and support that most educational circles on Twitter and Facebook provide for one another (we need it for the most part after the societal and cultural lumps that we take far too often). However, when it’s time to really grow as individuals and professionals, I can’t seem to recall the last time I created lasting growth and deeper understanding by a round of “good jobs”. In fact, feel free to use this blog post as a way to tell me what I’m doing wrong, and call me out on a number of topics. I’ve been down that road before and when someone like David Warlick calls you out on your published thoughts in a national magazine, once you get passed the wincing and wound-licking you have a great opportunity to emerge stronger and more thoughtful.
EduPreneurs Make Me Leary
I come from a long time on entrepreneurs. My father, his father before him, his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father (you get the point) were all independent business men at some point in their lives. Among various dalliances with side businesses and sales jobs, my family had a small department store for over 100 years before it finally closed its doors at the turn of the millenium. I grew up in the world of retail, service, independent entrepreneurship, and sales. I don’t have anything against people wanting to carve out a successful business for themselves on the merit of their own experiences, wisdom, and talents, but I do know this from my own family’s experiences; being a successful entrepreneur means that you look for opportunities, some more opportunistic than others, about how to grow your business. It doesn’t matter how much you might profess your dedication to helping students, teachers, and education in general, eventually the bottom line is going to take hold in some small way. I’m not trying to be pessimistic or cynical in this, just pragmatic…I’ve seen it happen all too often. Granted there are great examples of educators taking the EduPreneur route and sticking to a more altruistic over tones. Prominent edu-blogger Dan Meyer has managed to do this with his 101qs site revolving around making math instruction better. I just begin to develop that sense of distrust when a prominent blogger or education thinker starts to evangelize one particular learning/technology platform over another, then discover that they also happen to be heavily invested in developing applications or tools for that particular platform.
Those Fancy Infographics Are Just Posters, And They’re Getting Worse
Once upon a time, infographics used to be really cool (hilarious, but don’t open that link while working with students). Many are a nice blend of humor, play on cultural references, and actually use the graphical elements to make an emphatic point about the data. Sadly, most of the infographics I see getting posted on many mainstream education blogs are the equivalent of graphic design sweat shops that don’t exactly create strong visual references or elements that help tie all of the data together in a cohesive piece of art. They’re more like posters 2.0, and for the vast majority of infrographic publishing PR firms, there’s nothing amazing going on here. It’s an epidemic actually, spurred on by many of those link-bait sites I mentioned in concern number one; they must have this nice email list that they share with one another containing several hundreds, if not thousands, of regular education bloggers asking for “guest” posts, and suggestions of infographics to share, because I seem them tend to pop up in small clusters. Oh, and those really cool tools that let you create your own visually stunning info graphics? Those aren’t infographics, they’re just graphs….with the added detriment of having to scroll through them to see everything.
Sharing Corporations & Products More Than Student Work & Lessons Learned
This could very well be my biggest beef with many mainstream education blogs. While I have certainly been guilty of sharing products over process, the general rise in the number of blogger-turned-product-placement-professionals is a bit unnerving. Not that the blogosphere is in danger of becoming overrun with legions of consumer-level PR machines, but as more and more bloggers receive complimentary gadgets, accounts, and services from a variety of corporations, it can become increasingly difficult to tell if they really value the product, or are just moving onto their next sweet deal. Are people writing about the gallon of IdeaPaint they picked up because they bought it themselves, and they’re really enjoying it, or did they receive a complimentary gift to try it out, write about their experience, and then moved on to something else that caught their attention? It’s not that I have a problem with this, as I’ve received a number of pretty sweet deals throughout my blogging tenure, but my concern is what happens when the majority of mainstream education blogs become nothing more than just another media channel for corporations to push their wares? There aren’t any terribly bad culprits of this that I can callout; it’s more of a general warning to any mainstream education blogger. If you’re writing more and more about amazing products and services, and less about actual instruction, student experiences, and something that adds to the educational world without having to purchase it for $29.99, you might have tilted the scales a bit too far.
So What Now, Ben?
Remember how I said I don’t do this sort of thing very often? It’s because while I like to sound off quite frequently in face-to-face conversations and forum posts (some might say I have a rather stand-offish attitude at times), I like to make sure that when I take the time to write, share my feelings, and actually try to put some prosaic words in a little text-box, I have some type of reflective after note. In this case, my response to these concerns is actually rather simplistic, and in a way I hope might deflect any of those negative comments that I’m sure some might be more than willing to share. I did link directly to a few examples of blog posts that concern me, and it would certainly be easy for me to say “start reading my blog!” as a response, it’s not how I feel. My blog is certainly not intended to be mainstream about anything, and as I mentioned earlier, I notice some of the growing issues out there happening in my own blogging as well.
I would strongly encourage anyone with an RSS Reader (people still use RSS, right?) to check out a few blogs that are both well established in educational thought, and do a wonderfully profound job of being reflective, adding to the rich narrative of teacher and students voices here on the internet, and are being written first and foremost for the author. Alan Levine, Audrey Watters, and James Paul Gee are just a few to get you started. The way they write is often profoundly simple, and while they may ramble on in comparison to the typical “10 sentence maximum” blog posts on many heavily trafficked education blogs, their writing represents the kind of reflection, introspection, and self curation that I wish more educators and students could develop. In an era when so many are caught up in MOOCs, Alan is willing to openly question the very foundation of why we need to have courses at all. Audrey describes the most amazingly detailed “test” that she runs through when meeting with new EduPreneurs, and short of giving them a long form essay question on the history of educational theory, she lays out a number of critical questions that I rarely see many popular education bloggers postulating of the services, products, and individuals they’re talking about. Heck, I know I’d fail if I ever found myself on the receiving end of many of those questions. Mr. Gee has led me to believe that a lot of educators talking about Gamification in the classroom are going about it all wrong.
There are certainly hundreds upon thousands upon millions of great educational voices out there in the world, and my hope is that those fortunate enough to be competing for the most mind share of classroom teachers are being good stewards in their position of prominence.