EdTech: Too Many Ideas, Not Enough Tech?

Yesterday, the not-so startling news broke that Ning is planning to do away with their free, Google Ad supported service for social networks. The twittersphere lit up with posts from people scrambling for free-alternatives, jumping ship faster than a drowning rat (alright, so at least one tweep had the sanity to post a comment that’s close to reality). Steve Hargadon was one of the first educators in my PLN to put up a post about it, spending most of his time discussing how to save a network’s membership information, and offering up his employer’s alternative social networking service, but he finished with one little nugget of wisdom:

This does seem like a dramatic turn of events, but something really powerful has happened in the education world, for which Ning has been a great springboard.  Educational networking, however, is now more powerful than one company’s services alone.  The road may not be completely smooth, but we will figure this out together. 🙂

-Steve Hargadorn

IndeGeeked, something powerful has been happening in the education world. Increasing numbers of less than tech-savvy educators have been joining social networks, creating personal learning networks, and have begun to collaborate with their much more tech-savvy peers online thanks to simple free services like Ning. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to launch into a rant decrying the swelling ranks of technology refugees that join twitter only to make a few dozen half-hearted tweets before giving it up, or accidentally sign up for the sme website twice because they forgot their username from the first time. Many of these people educators are my colleagues, and my friends. Many of them are highly successful veteran teachers that make my efforts to instruct seem like a college intern’s attempts at his first solo week. The point is that we, as a community of educators using technology, have drifted far from the more “techie roots” of self-taught programming, web-domain management, and open-source manipulating “geeks”. The majority of our community is now “users” and “consumers” rather than “architects” and “dreamers.”

Which of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We need consumers, an audience if you will, to validate the work we do. And to abide by an old adage, “too many cooks spoils the broth.” The growing ranks of educators using free social networking sites, social bookmarking tools, and signing up for automagically created, hosted, and managed blogs has sky-rocketed in the past few years, and that’s a good thing. However, along the way, we’ve lost a lot of what made it so magical to begin with; individuals trying to teacher themselves simple HTML, reverse engineer PHP-scripts, and take ownership of the entire process of creation, not just the product they create.

My brother is a mechanic, and since I got a little geeky there, I’ll use a simple analogy. I own a car; I drive it everyday, get the oil changed religiously, wash it…..occasionally. But I’d be stuck if I had to replace the brake lines (thanks Jon!), or rebuild the transmission. I have a basic understanding of how it all works, but I would be lost trying to build my own car (or even do simple repairs) myself. And that’s where we are with this Ning situation; people reacting almost immediately with cries of “give me a new service to sign up for, and make it FREE!” They don’t understand how “the car” even works, let alone understand how it was built. A shame really, when there are many freely available tools (Elgg, WordPress, etc.) with which to build your own social networks. It’s as if too many people either don’t have the time, or feel they have the knowledge to do something as daunting as setting up their own social network.

Which is silly considering how easy it is to setup your own database-driven, plugin ready website today. This blog is powered by WordPress, which I self-installed on my own domain. I didn’t have to know a single line of code to do it; 5 years ago, I signed up for a webhost (dreamhost.com), got an account, paid to register my domain name, and they installed it for me with a click of the button. Yes, I pay for the webhosting (about $120 a year), but I have complete control over my blog; I can upload and change themes, I can install ANY plugin I want (try doing that at Edublogs), I can directly edit the code on my site (if I was daring enough) and I have much more control over this website than I will ever have with even the premium Ning network that I help manage. I know “how this car works.” Sure, I still can’t build one from scratch myself, but I’ve learned a lot trying to keep this “vehicle” from swerving off the road, and because of that I feel fully confident that should my Ning network go up in smoke, I could recreate something simliar, possibly better, on my own using freely available tools. I wouldn’t need to go find a new service to signup for, and I’m glad that there were a few tweets offering up many open source solutions for creating your own network rather than rely on another service.

We have a HUGE network of educators that we interact with everyday, with varying levels of technological know-how, but we’ve moved further away from a lot of the “home-brewed” sites and adventures that made the Internet so much fun in the mid-90s. We’ve come to rely on others to provide us services that might vaguely fit our needs, without wanting to “get our hands” dirty with the technical side of creating, managing, and maintaining online networks. Perhaps I’m a bit jaded though. My Master’s Program is built around educators developing a working knowledge of Ruby on Rails, one of the most popular open-source set of programming tools to create web applications (social networks, media sharing, etc.). I’ve spent the last 12 months learning how to build “the car” that helps us navigate the streets of the Internet. I’m not advocating that every educator take on a Computer Science degree in their spare time (when we have spare time that is), and I realize that I could very well be coming off as a bit of a curmudgeon here.

The truth of the matter is, we are living in a time when the amount of resources, materials, and other educators that we can tap into is like no other time before it. It’s incredible to be able to connect with other teachers from around the world on a daily basis just by typing 140 characters. The number of great ideas that are shared via blogs, twitter, and other networks is staggering; I encounter daily the sparks of great ideas that could easily consume a person’s lifetime if followed through to full fruition.

In fact, I saw one last night. Some enterprising educator decided to create an ad hoc collaborative group to quickly compile a list of alternatives to Ning. It was brilliant, the document contained several examples of free services, open-source, DIY alternatives, with fantastically insightful comments describing the quick comparison between Ning and the alternatives. There were micro-reviews, links, and several pages worth of great information. It was  21st century educator’s dream! People, responding to a problem had spontaneously joined together (via online tools), and in less than one day’s time had assembled a pretty impressive document for creating free social networks for education…..and that’s when everything went horribly wrong.

Someone decided that this was such a brilliant idea (because I think it was), that they would add even more “cooks” to the pot. The more voices, the better the process, right?

WRONG! This is where education gets a lot of things right when it comes to ideas, but lately we’ve been using technology as though we really don’t understand how it works (which a great deal many of us don’t as I surmised earlier). Within a few minutes, the link to the Google Doc where these bright, eager educators had been collaborating was tweeted and retweeted ad-infinitum, inviting who knows how many hundreds or thousand of people to come collaborate with them. By the time I clicked on the link to jump in and offer up some ideas, there were well over 400+ simultaneous users on one Google Doc, and you can guess what happened then; my web-browser choked, my computer became unresponsive, and within just a few clicks of the keys I received an error from Google Docs. Being a person who isn’t easily thwarted by a simple error message, I clicked the little “x” on the error message and pushed onward. Only to be greeted by another error, and another.

Google Docs Error

Now, I had a feeling I knew this was going to happen when I clicked on the link. I mean, come on, an open invitation to collaborate on a “hot button” educational issue? That’s a recipe for disaster, and it was. I know this, because I saw it first hand at the MACUL 2010 closing keynote, when Hall Davidson invited every attendee in the session to collaborate in a single Google Doc Spreadsheet, and 500 users later we brought Google Docs to it’s knees, complete with error messages and a never before seen “high traffic” mode that stripped away a lot of the formatting features for users of the document.

usersThe point I’m trying to make is that one educator took a fantastic 21st century learning idea, didn’t consider the technological consequences, and went for it. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have….it was actually a bit humorous watching that number of users tick upwards in a never-ending ascension of collaborative-glee. But with all of the great ideas we’re having about 21st century learning, and the opportunities we have to share and communciate like never before, FAR too many educators are getting the educational side of things, and not the technological side; computers, servers, smartphones, workstations, broadband connections, access points; these are physical devices, with physical limitations, and they cost time and money to engineer, build, and deploy.

The document that was produced turned out to be a really great collective piece of information, but the process in which it was done made it so that 1) I couldn’t physically contribute during the moments of greatest sharing, and 2) I’m pretty sure there are a few hundred other people who either couldn’t contribute OR hampered those already working by clogging that document, and causing all of the crashes. I had a very brief disagreement with David Warlick about this a few years ago, and I feel that it still stands. Teachers today need a blended preparation, one that not only shows them how to use online collaborative tools, but also shows them how these tools work, so they have a better understanding of “how the car gets down the road”. Is it completely necessary? No, but I can bet that if you required that sort of competency you’d be able to take the thousands of great ideas shared everyday be able to fly down the highway with them, rather than causing a 50-car pile up on the freeway in the name of collaboration.

Oh, and the actual Google Document that contains all of this great information about Ning alternatives? I can’t even get to it as of this posting, so I’ll leave it to you to track it down for fear of clogging the collaborative effort even more. If you find it in a more usable form, please post in the comments.

Image – http://www.flickr.com/photos/60648084@N00/2462966749


  1. An insightful post, Ben. I enjoy “learning how the car works” and have often thought about using a web hosting service with elgg or wordpress to build my network. Are you open to fielding some questions?

    I am in the position of making a decision about a Ning I a manage for our RESA. I’m not upset by Ning’s decision to monetize and we may even find that the proposed educational offering is worth paying for. If not, I look forward to finding a new way to connect my network. I like change. And I like learning new things.

    .-= Kit Hard´s last blog ..Trying out the New Google Docs real time editing (with everyone!) =-.

    1. I’m always open to fielding questions; whether I can answer them is another thing entirely 🙂

      Change is indeed a good thing. A lot of people feel that forcing it is never a good thing, but I don’t mind it from time to time, makes it that much more challenging. Ideally Ning should have handled this better, but as with the rest of the web 2.0 world, I’m not surprised in the least. Several services that I’ve used in the past, some I came to rely on heavily, folded, were taken private, crashed, etc.

      It’s the nature of the web, and quite frankly, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more issues like this cropping up.

  2. Everything you’ve said makes sense. I am actually in a fairly new Masters program on Digital Teaching and Learning. I feel that educators, of course, have the right intentions in mind. I do, however, agree that the multitude of ideas can be taken even further if the technological side of things was fine tuned.

    1. And that’s where the critical nature of understanding how the technology works comes into play. We could better funnel our ideas and collaborate if we knew how to best use the tools. I’ve only come about my knowledge thanks to several years of playing, experimenting, and using these tools. I wish there was an easier, and faster, way to get that competency across.

      1. I understand completely the frustrations that we as educators and (students) experience with the often-times “magical nature” of the web and its old and new technologies. I teach a 2nd yr intro JAVA course (online) and often (deeply) feel the pains my students experience(s) as result of the constant butting of the heads – up against all of the technologies involved. The students want the knowledge quick, easy, and right now…sadly (I’ve found) that’s just not possible with today’s and yesterday’s exploding tech surge(s). I’m looking for a way to make their burdens lighter…yet maintain integrity for the profession. Great WebLog!

      2. Another educational interest of mine is to explore ways to spread and/or improve computer literacy in adult learners, particularly adults in marginalized populations such as certain ethnic groups, older persons, and persons who just do not have access to computers and computer systems. There are many reasons why people are not computer literate. I intend to conduct research using possibly a case study approach to explore and identify adaptable techniques for improving the computer knowledge and literacy of adult learners. My focus would be the delivery of computer literacy training to a select population in one geographical area. Examination of the demographic data of the study’s participants would help determine whether the results are transferrable or generalizable to other people in other areas of the United States or other global areas. Future updates to this blog will summarize my weekly progress as I further develop my understanding of the isues and approach to conducting the research.

      3. For this blog posting, two research methods were examined for possible use in the planned research study involving improvements in computer literacy and knowledge. These two research methodologies are program evaluation and action research. An existing computer-literacy program can be used or the research setting can be in an existing environment that is in need of enhancement or improvements.

        A program evaluation is distinguished from research in that the program evaluation is usually conducted for decision-making purposes, whereas research is used to inform practice or build upon our knowledge and understanding (Spaulding, 2010, p. 5). Spaulding defined a program as a set of specific activities designed for an intended purpose, with quantifiable goals and objectives (p. 5). Another definition was offered by Taylor-Powell, Steele, & Douglah (1996, p. 2): “Program evaluation refers to the thoughtful process of focusing on questions and topics of concern, collecting appropriate information, and then analyzing and interpreting the information for a specific use and purpose”.

        Taylor-Powell et al. (p. 7) advised that once you decide upon a particular question that the program evaluation will answer, it may be necessary to break a larger (or broader) question into its component parts. Adapted from examples provided by Taylor-Powell et al., a main question and sub-questions for the delivery of an adaptable computer literacy course for adult learners might be as follows:

        Action research, according to Riel (2010), is a process of deep inquiry into one’s problem or practice in service of moving towards an envisioned future and aligned with values. He added that action research is a form of learning from and through one’s practice by working through a series of reflections that yields a form of adaptive expertise. Action research concepts can be applied to the problem of improving computer literacy and knowledge in adult learners. This approach would be especially useful for analyzing and improving a current program with the idea of identifying weaknesses and eliminating barriers to the adults’ learning. In this instance, the goal of this action research effort would be an improvement in the community in which the computer-literacy practices are embedded through participatory research, where action research as a method is scientific in which the effects of an action are observed through a systematic process of examining the evidence (Riel, p. 2). Riel advised that the questions asked by action researchers guide their process and inspires one to look closely and collect evidence that will help find answers. Riel added that good questions arise from visions of improved practice and emerging theories about changes of the current practice to the ideal state of working practices. The research question sets up the inquiry and is the overarching problem selected and cycle questions (since action research takes place in cycles) are sub-questions that help to address the larger issue (Riel, 2010).

        Lodico, M., Spaulding, D. T., & Voegtle, K. H. (2006). Methods in educational research. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

        Riel, M. (2010). Understanding action research. Center For Collaborative Action Research, Pepperdine University. Retrieved June 28, 2010, from http://cadres.pepperdine.edu/ccar/define.html

        Spaulding, D. T. (2008). Program evaluation in practice: Core concepts and examples for discussion and analysis. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publications.

        Taylor-Powell, E., Steele, S., & Douglah, M. (1996). Planning a program evaluation. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Extension, Cooperative Extension. Retrieved June 28, 2010, from http://learningstore.uwex.edu/pdf/G3658-1.pdf

  3. Someone will come along down the road and eventually create a platform superior to Ning that will import existing Ning networks easily. When they do, I’ll be going without a backward glance.

    1. That is the beauty of technology – a change today means an advancement tomorrow. No looking back is a great practice for the innovations of the future.

  4. For this week’s blog, I will add to my discussion of computer literacy. Computer literacy for older citizens is becoming a bigger concern as technology is emerging as a means for using the Internet to obtain health-related information to improve health literacy and health numeracy (Jensen et al., 2010). Jensen et al. related how older persons with low health literacy skills were less likely to use Internet technology such as email, search engines, and online health websites. Their research showed consistency with past research in that older participants and those with less education were less likely to search online for health information. One method for enabling these older persons to use and gain access to technology could be sparked by creating user-friendly technology interfaces, such as pictorial touch screens, and computer systems that are accessible to persons with limited literacy skills.

    Bean (2004) offered that computer literacy is the base component of eLiteracy, or being able to use technology tools to communicate and/or access health or other information. According to the Pew Report on Internet Use (February 2004), “58% of people aged 50-64 are accessing the Internet, while 75% of 30-49 year-olds are accessing the Internet and 77% of 18-29 year-olds are accessing the Internet’ (p. 110).

    Special programs should target older participants, especially those ranging in age from middle age to elderly (80+ years). Bean explained that the attentional and cognitive processes required in attaining computer knowledge and skills are also the most affected by the aging process. In addition, physical factors such as arthritis, tremors cataracts, and debilitating disorders can adversely impact an older person’s ability to use ordinary computer systems (Bean, p. 110). To remedy some of the cognitive, attentive, and physical hardships of the aging person, Bean recommended the presentation of computer literacy courses that focused on teaching computer skills and techniques in a series of short classes with minimal handouts but using simple exercises. The educator or course facilitator should choose an existing course or should tailor the contents and proceedings of the planned computer-literacy training to match the knowledge and skill level of the program’s participants.


    Bean, C. (2004). Techniques for enabling the older population in technology. Journal of eLiteracy, 1, 109-121.

    Jensen, J. D., King, A. J., Davis, L. A., & Guntzviller, L. M. (2010). Utilization of Internet technology by low-income adults: The role of health literacy, health numeracy, and computer assistance. Journal of Aging and Health, 1-23.

  5. For this week’s blog, I will again add to my discussion of computer literacy. Another aspect worth examining is the impact of literacy issues on older persons’ computer literacy. Saunders (2004) stated that two trends are looming prominent in our society – our populations are aging and society is relying more and more on technology. He added that today’s global population is witnessing advances in computerized technology and are becoming dependent on computerized resources to enhance our lives, health, and communications (p. 573). There is a wealth of information that offer perspectives on literacy and computer literacy in older persons in society (Lalor, Doyle, McKenna, & Fitzsimons, 2009; Larkin-Lieffers, 2000; Saunders, 2004).

    Lalor et al. indicated that older persons have different attitudes toward literacy than younger generations and may not recognize that they have any difficulties with literacy. Cross (1981), WRC (2003), and Bailey & Coleman (1998) (as cited in Lalor et al.) offered several barriers to older persons’ participation in adult education, which could mean barriers to improving literacy and computer literacy; these included:

    (1) Contextual barriers such as prevailing trends and policy issues (e.g., social exclusion, equality, and educational disadvantage).
    (2) Institutional barriers such as ethos, practices, and procedures that serve to exclude or discourage adults from participating in adult learning activities.
    (3) Informational barriers such as lack of or non-access to opportunities for education (e.g., informational materials and also outreach measures for target groups).
    (4) Situational barriers such as one’s situation or environment at particular times (e.g., lack of time, famility commitments, etc.).
    (5) Dispositional barriers such as attitudes and self-perceptions about oneself as a learner (e.g., issues with age, gender, educational levels, and motivational factors).

    The results of Larkin-Lieffers’ study, which involved older persons use of public library technology, showed an overall low use of the library’s computer technology and reluctance to access the online catalogs despite having positive attitudes toward computers.
    When designing literacy and computer literacy programs, formative adjustments to the planned program may be needed as the training is taking place so that persons are encouraged to experiment with and use computers and the library’s computerized technology (Larkin-Lieffers, p. 232).


    Lalor, T., Doyle, G., McKenna, A., & Fitzsimons, A. (2009). Learning through life: A study of older people with literacy difficulties in Ireland. National Adult Literacy Agency. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.tsa.ie/assets/Uploads/pdf/Learning-through-Life-A-study-of-older-people-with-literacy-difficulties-in-Ireland.pdf

    Larkin-Lieffers, P. A. (2000). The older adult and public library computer technology: A pilot study in a Canadian setting. Libri, 50, 225-234.

    Saunders, E. J. (2004). Maximizing computer use among the elderly in rural senior cienters. Educational Gerontology, 30, 573-585. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://legacy.lclark.edu/~patm/maximizing%20computer%20use%20among%20the%20elderly%20in%20rural%20senior%20centers.pdf

  6. In this week’s blog, I will continue dialoguing about designing and implementing computer knowledge and literacy programs for marginalized persons in the United States, in particular, older persons and persons nearing retirement ages. The stakeholders involved in implementing the needed computer educational training include the participants, community center leaders, training facilitators, instructors, teachers, and local, corporate, and government sponsors. When designing and implementing strategies to enhance the computer literacy and knowledge, several factors must be taken into account that also include addressing barriers that affect older persons’ cognitive and physical concerns. Larkin-Lieffers (2000) explained that, for older adults, the dynamics of computer familiarity, anxiety and willingness to become computer literate are complex, with specific barriers that must be overcome. These barriers may include decline in cognitive and physical skills needed to gain competence in using computers and technology (Larkins-Lieffers, p. 227). In her study on older person’s use of computer technology in library settings, Larkin-Lieffers’ review of the literature revealed that older persons may have more difficulty learning to use computers than younger adults for a variety of reasons, namely, older persons take longer to learn to use the technology, tend to make more errors, take longer to complete tasks, and require more assistance to master the needed skills (p. 226). In addition, physical constraints, such as changes in vision and dexterity with age, could complicate an older person’s ability to type, quickly identify icons, and coordinate the clicking and dragging of the mouse to perform certain computer operations.

    Previous research seem to indicate that older persons are more likely to be involved in using technology if they are made aware of the benefits and understanding that technology can be both personally relevant and useful (Broady et al., pp. 478-479). To design and implement effective computer and technology education for older learners, Broady et al. suggested (a) providing clear explanations of the personal benefits of technology and computer literacy, (b) allowing ample time for older persons to master new skills, (c) treating learners in positive manners to make them feel valued and that program success is the expected outcome, and (d) using role models for encouraging similar behavior among women and older persons, particularly using women teachers and older teachers acting as role models for students with similar demographic characteristics (p. 481).

    Researchers have emphasized that the success of any new educational program will depend strongly upon the support and attitudes of the instructors.


    Broady, T., Chan, A., & Caputi, P. (2010). Comparison of older and younger adults’ attitudes towards and abilities with computers: Implications for training and learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(3), 473–485.

    Larkin-Liefer, P. A. (2000). The older adult and public library computer technology: A pilot study in a Canadian setting. Libri, 50, 225-234.

  7. During this week’s blog post, I recently had the unique experience of examining three websites of international organizations that are making positive impacts on adult and higher education around the world.

    One of those organizations is the International Accreditation Organization (IAO). IAO’s website indicated that although traditional education institutions have resisted the hard task of imposing a single international standard of what schools should teach by creating standards and assessing that performance against those standards, they understand the imporatnace aof and inevitability of international institutions making comparisons of educational programs. These educational programs at accrediting organizations must meet certain criteria for attaining key competencies. The dilemma, according to IAO, is that without established accrediting criteria, institutions may find it very difficult to verify the quality of the provided education. The challenge of IAO’s initiative for assessing the academic performance of curricula at international educational institutions is gaining international acceptance, where such acceptance by an international accreditation agency such as IAO could “be a plus point in the quest for worldwide program coverage and independent verification of your educational process” (http://www.iao.org/iao/resources/moving-towards.asp ).

    Encouragingly, IAO’s accreditation standards are based on bench-marked process for providing and delivering solid online educational programs.

  8. This final blog after eight consecutive weeks of posting blogs summarizes the results of a three-part course project that involved accessing and participating in domestic and international educational blogging websites. In this blogging experience, I explored a topic that is strongly related to my Scholarly Position Paper, which addresses an issue affecting adult education. In my blog posts, I attempted to extend my knowledge on the subject of improving adult computer knowledge and literacy, particularly focusing on older persons. Each post incorporated a different aspect of adult computer literacy, with these perspectives being influenced by the doctoral course’s (EDUC 8105: Adult Learning: Trends, Issues, Global Perspective) reading assignments, discussions, and review of the literature on the topics of literacy, computer literacy, and adult education. While my blogging experience in this project did not yield the desired level of collaboration to extend my knowledge on my chosen topic, I continue to believe that using blogs in an educational setting can prove to be a valuable exercise and can enable persons to effectively expand the knowledge and educational practices of educators, colleagues, students, and other participants. Several authors have indicated the importance of integrating technology (for example blogs and discussion forums) into our teaching approaches, whether we are teaching in classroom or online educational settings (Crie, 2006; Galbraith, 2004, pp. 273-287;
    Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005, pp. 236-238; Wetzel, 2009).


    Crie, M. (2006). Using blogs to integrate technology in the classroom. Teaching Today. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.glencoe.com/sec/teachingtoday/educationupclose.phtml/print/47

    Galbraith, M. (Ed.). (2004). Adult learning methods: A guide for effective instruction (3rd, ed.). Malabar, FL: Kreiger.

    Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., III, & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner (6th, ed.). New York, NY: Elsevier Publishing.

    Wetzel, D. R. (2009). 7 technology tips for the classroom: Strategies and techniques for integrating Web 2.0 tools. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://teachingtechnology.suite101.com/article.cfm/7_technology_tips_for_the_classrom

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