My Growing Concerns About Mainstream Education Blogs

Dec 11, 2012 by

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.

My concerns about mainstream education blogs aren’t really alarmist. They’re more like, “should there really be aloe flavored yogurt?”

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 Friend 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.

 

22 Comments

  1. I share many of these concerns. The ‘firehose’ blogs are sometimes good for rounding up resources. I find things from them that I otherwise wouldn’t. But the ’50 ways to ___’ and ’35 top ____’ posts, instead of being occasional, are a neverending stream that has little substance.

    The infographics explosion is driving me nuts. Bad info sources, poor presentation, and an invite nearly every day to post one on my blog. No thanks.

    The online colleges web sites are the worst. They’re both ‘firehose’ and ‘infographic’ offenders and are pure linkbait and/or Google Ads sinkholes.

    Thanks for sharing your frustrations. They’re shared by many of us. Good job, Ben! ;)

    • Thanks Scott! As you pointed out in the Twitter stream, this is certainly tame compared to what more prominent bloggers like yourself have been saying for quite some time now. I was conservative in this post because I know how it can appear when the “little guy” starts to call out mainstream individuals.

      I get the same emails about SEO/Spammy “guest posts” and offers to post infographics as well. I delete them after chuckling softly to myself when I see what angle they’re trying to take.

      As for “firehose” blogs…I think I wouldn’t be so concerned as much if those mainstream bloggers sharing or reposting them would offer more than just the 140 characters that Twitter affords them, or at least a bit of reflection as to some interesting highlights or actual applications of the resources. This blog use to resemble one of those “resource a day” sites, but I always tried to connect it to actual use in the classroom, whether it was my own experience or a colleague’s. Even then, I typically averaged 10-15 posts a month, not 3-5 posts a day.

      • I could easily blog 3-5 times per day (reflectively) in terms of thoughts I have and resources I think are worth sharing. I’ve always been worried about overwhelming people, though. Maybe I’ll try it for a month to see what happens! Folks like Richard Ferlazzo, Wes Fryer, and Richard Byrne manage to do it…

        I would encourage you to call out whatever you feel deserves calling out. We need less echo chamber and more brave voices. I guarantee others are feeling what you’re feeling…

      • Sorry, my brain got twisted up there for a second… Larry Ferlazzo. Richard Byrne. :)

  2. Ben, I think you did a great job of summarizing some of my frustrations as well. My reader is being overwhelmed because of the number of posts some of the blogs I follow put up. I’m feeling a need for more substance in posts…more reflection than reviews.

    This stems back to the short discussion we had this weekend. How can we get social media (networks or blogs) back to deep, thought-provoking conversation pieces, rather than exhortations or “hurrah” sessions?

    • I’m not sure if there’s an easy way to get people to move away from the “hurrah” posts as there’s certainly a strong need for them. Our profession seems to be an ever embattled one, and I certainly don’t want to put down a much needed group hug of solidarity. There’s also the growing element of consumer/blogger turned PR lackey across the entire blogging world, which is much larger than just the edublogosphere.

      I can think of a few ways we could help draw conversation back to the process though. If we participate in more communities, spend less time on our own blogs pontificating (like I’m doing here), that will certainly help. Poking around and adding to communities that don’t always agree with you is helpful as well, I think the Disruptors Channel on EdReach is starting to do that a bit. Taking risks with our own thoughts, and challenging others around us won’t be nearly as effective though if we don’t start reaching out in more face-to-face connections, so I see EdCamps as a great way to get critical discussion rolling as well.

  3. Patrick Diemer

    I have often been disgusted with the shameless self promotion of some in education and have struggled with how to address that. I understand people wanting to make money doing what they love but there should be a point where people start to actually post some of their original work/thoughts instead of trying to make ad money. I appreciate your well thought and articulate post.

    • This is the same position my wife takes with me at home when I’m trying to argue a point. She regularly tosses out the “stop quoting others and give me your own thoughts” line. It’s helped me be less of a parrot, and more of a thoughtful recluse.

  4. Scott McLeod says:
    December 11, 2012 at 9:07 am
    “I could easily blog 3-5 times per day (reflectively) in terms of thoughts I have and resources I think are worth sharing. I’ve always been worried about overwhelming people, though.”

    I wouldn’t have a problem with 3-5 blog reflective, thoughtful blog posts a day. If anything it would make it easier to justify keeping someone’s blog feed in my reader on on my Twitter radar. We blog for ourselves, or at least we should, right? If anything we should worry about overwhelming people with the type of posts that might be better relegated to Diigo, Pinterest, or Delicious.

    As for some of those bloggers you mentioned as posting several times a day, I actually stopped following at least one of them because of these concerns. Managing to post several glanced-over press releases a day doesn’t give me what I need, and while I know it does give what a number of educators need, it worries me that I see a growing number of educators wanting to emulate it, as they should be taking it to a more critical level.

  5. Tom

    The funny part is I only post my friendlier stuff. Although it might explain my lack of friends.

    I have started a post or 3 to rip up some of those “infographics”but it was just so boring and irritating that I stopped.

    I recommend a new twitter tag. Something like #edusellout or #defEDUcation or#edufeces if that’s too subtle. My patience with it is gone.

    Be positive, celebrate real good but it’s time to slap people perpetuating harmful drivel upside the head. Call them out. There must be an opposing narrative.

    As long as you put up with me I’m ok.

    • I’ll always put up with you Tom. You helped me through one of the hardest years of my young educational career during my brief stint as a 1:1 teacher. If I hadn’t left the school due to the terribly unsupportive administration, I’d still be there thanks to all the encouragement I found in our conversations back and forth.

      You know me well enough that I’m not one to start huge fights online (usually), but I’m emboldened to take my time writing up some more focused critiques of what bothers me.

      #badinfographicsuck4life

  6. I think one of the real wonders of blogging has been lost in the “post as much as you can” frenzy. Comments.

    When you have several posts a day, you don’t allow space for discussion. And my favorite blog (a sports blog btw) only posts at most twice a day, allowing for a large following to have a deep discussion reflecting on the post. I have grown as a fan just by hearing other people’s perspectives and not because they have given me resources. There’s too much of the really useful stuff to build on, let alone check out new things daily.

    Thanks for the post Ben, and thank you others for the great comments.

    • The organization I blog for only posts once per day. Some entries are fairly brief. I think mine are technically too long. However, I appreciate what we are trying to do because it isn’t about promoting any one product or pedagogy, but posing important questions about how practice influences teaching… with real stories from real teachers, none of whom (that I know of) are trying to sell anything. It’s about getting teachers’ real experiences and reflections out there.

      I appreciated your post, Ben, because I am rather new to the Twitter/ Educational Blog scene, and I hadn’t really begun to break things down the way you have here. I was not aware of some of the hidden connections you bring up… just kind of beginning to notice the trends. Thanks so much.

  7. Very thought-provoking! If you’d rather read in-the-trenches teaching stories and the relationship between policy and real teachers and administrators, try storiesfromschoolaz.org or storiesfromschool.org. I blog for them, so this is not an unbiased invitation, but I liked hearing your standards for educational blogging. I’d love to know what you think.

    • Mea Culpa, I mistook your barrage of comments as a spammer at first, but I decided to follow up on your links and I love the idea of what’s happening on your Arizona School blog. It seems like the type of reflective practice and storytelling narrative that’s happening there is exactly what I’d like to see more of with mainstream education blogs. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Thanks for this. I currently lurk on twitter and read headlines: it’s hard to figure the quality of what I’m about to click in to. I now have a few names from your post of blogs to follow. So in case you didn’t know, you just vouched for them and I will now spend my valuable and scarce internet time looking at these vetted sources instead of waiting in the tide-pool for the good stuff to wash in by chance.

    I can’t eat Fillet Mignon every day, but I do like to know which restaurants to go to when I’m ready for a big meal. So this curated list from my trusted source is just what I needed. :) I will of course come back and complain if one of your links turns out to be total garbage, so don’t think I’m just patting you on the back for fun. :P

    • I will gladly accept your criticism upon reading any and all awful resources, and promptly toss you out on your ear :) Besides, I get enough patting on the back from people around me, I have to have someplace to make “curated resource” enemies.

      Keep checking the tide-pools from time to time, you never know what may wash up.

  9. Thanks for sharing this Mark. Some great examples, and I look forward to reading your blog and finding out more about this project.

  10. Ben-

    I share your concerns about blogging. I feel many bloggers are using their skill to sell products or self-promote services. I guess that is the nature of the business and evolution of educational blogging. Everyone starts small, write about student’s products and tools used in the classroom. As traffic builds, companies take notice and relationships are born. Educators need to remember the lessons we teach our students about being consumers of information. Always take information with a grain of salt and look for the biases. Bloggers do need to do a better job about disclosing relationships. If they write about a product and receive compensation, this information is relevant to the review.

    Thanks for all your hard work as an educator and blogger.

  11. As new to the education blogosphere, I just try to write what I know to be true. I attempt to strike a balance between the issues you have raised here Ben and even have already committed some of the mistakes you referenced. I hope as I continue to blog about my experiences that I also continue to grow as a thinker.

    • I’ve grown tremendously in my career, and I let that show (or at least I hope it shows) in my writing. There are many bloggers that don’t let that show, and continue to write from a “beat” perspective, which is totally cool. The important thing is to find your voice, and what works for you. I still make lots of mistakes, but at least I’m comfortable making them as they’re new mistakes. In a way, they aren’t really mistakes at all, just opportunities with various outcomes, some that help me more than others, depending on where I’m headed. That changes, and will continue to change, so you never know when a mistake from the past becomes an actual opportunity :)

  12. Jess Knott

    You raise some excellent points. At ETC, we are frequently approached with offers, but have chosen to be selective with what we review. The temptations are great, sometimes. It takes diligence, and it’s hard to find an angle sometimes. It’s even harder to abandon a draft for the vety reasons you’ve laid out. I’ve lost hours to “nope, not good enough.” Man, that’s the worst. Keep truckin’, it’s worth it.

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