Unlike many of the bloggers who I enjoy reading the most, I don’t often let my blogging wander into the personal except as a route to making a larger point. For some reason, e-Literate never felt like the right outlet for that. But with the holidays upon us, with some life cycle events in my family causing me to be a bit more introspective than usual, and with the luxury of having discovered Phil’s top 20 posts of the year post showing up in my inbox, I’m in the mood to ruminate about my personal journey in blogging, where it’s taken me so far, and what it means to me. In the process, I’ll also reflect a bit on what we try to do at e-Literate.
When I started the blog 10 years ago, I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. OK, I guess that’s still true in some ways. What I mean is that I was looking for a purpose in my life. I had been a middle school and high school teacher for five years. It was the by far the best job I had ever had, and in some ways is still the best job I ever had. I left for a few different reasons. One was financial. I had fallen in love with a woman who had two teenaged daughters and suddenly found myself having to support a family. Another was frustration with a lack of professional growth opportunities. I taught in a wonderful, tiny little private school that operated out of eight rooms in the back of the Hoboken public library. It was amazing. But I wanted to do more and there was really no place for me to grow at the small school. I was young and feeling my oats. Lacking teacher’s certification and having been spoiled by teaching in such an amazing environment, I despaired of finding the right opportunity that would be professionally exciting while also allowing me to support my family. Part of it, too, was that I was beginning to get drawn to larger, systemic and cultural questions. For example, in the United States we have strong local control over our school systems, and my experience was that the overwhelming majority of parents care deeply for their children and want what’s best for them. Theoretically, it should be simple for parents to demand and get better schools. But that rarely happens. Why not? Why was the wonderful place that I was working at so rare? So I went wandering. I tried a few different things, but none of them made me happy. I am a teacher from a family of teachers. I needed to be close to education. But I also needed to support my family. And I needed to spread my wings, intellectually. I kept getting drawn to the bigger, systemic issues.
I started e-Literate just before I got a job at the SUNY Learning Network, having wandered in the wilderness first of graduate school and then of corporate e-Learning and knowledge management for a number of years. I had hoped that writing in public would help me clarify for myself what I wanted to do next in education as well as find some fellow travelers who might help me identify some sort of a career path that made sense. Meanwhile, I made a few good friends at SUNY, but mostly I grew quickly frustrated with the many barriers to doing good educational work that, once again, just shouldn’t exist if we lived in any kind of a rational world. Blogging was an oasis for me. It was a place where I found the kind of community that I should have had in academia but mostly didn’t. As I learned from early ed tech bloggers like Stephen Downes, Alan Levine, D’Arcy Norman, Scott Leslie, Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, Joe Ugoretz, George Siemens, and Dave Cormier (who co-hosted a wonderful internet radio show in those pre-podcasting days), I felt like I had found a home. It’s hard to describe what those early times of edublogging felt like if you weren’t around then. It was much friendlier. Much cozier. Everybody was just trying to figure stuff out together. I was just another shmoe working in the coal mines at a public university system, but in the blogosphere, there were really smart, articulate, accomplished people who took what I had to say seriously and encouraged me to say more. We argued sometimes, but mostly it was the good kind of argument. Arguments over what matters and what is true, rather than over who matters and what is the correct thing to say. It was…magical. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the bloggers I have mentioned here as well as others. I am ashamed to realize that I probably haven’t expressed that publicly before now. Without the folks who were already here when I arrived, I wouldn’t be where I am and who I am.
That said, finding a community is not the same thing as finding a purpose. The blogging wasn’t part of a satisfying career doing good in education so much as it was an escape from an unsatisfying career of failing to do good in education.
Then Blackboard sued Desire2Learn over a patent.
Such a strange thing to change a person’s life. Like most people, I really didn’t know what to make of it at first. I have never been dogmatically anti-corporate, anti-patent, or even anti-Blackboard. That said, Blackboard had proven itself to be a nasty, hyper-competitive company in those days, and this sounded like more of the same at first blush. But really, what did it mean to assert a patent in ed tech? I decided to figure it out. I read up on patent law and studied the court documents from the case (which Desire2Learn was publishing). I got a lot of help from Jim Farmer and some folks in the law community. And what I learned horrified me. Blackboard’s patent, if it had been upheld, would have applied to every LMS on the market, both proprietary and open source. Much worse, though, was the precedent it would have set. The basic argument that Blackboard made in their patent application process was that their invention was novel because it applied specifically to education. It was a little bit like arguing that one could patent a car that was designed only to be driven to the grocery store. Even if you didn’t care about the LMS, a successful assertion of that patent would have opened up Pandora’s box for any educational software. And if companies perceived that they could gain competitive advantages over their rivals by asserting patents, it would be the end of creative experimentation in educational technology. The U.S. patent system is heavily tilted toward large companies with deep pockets. Blackboard was already in the process of assembling a patent portfolio that would have enabled them to engage in what’s known as “stacking.” This is when a company files a flurry of lawsuits over a bunch of patents against a rival. Even if most of those assertions are bogus, it doesn’t matter, because the vast majority of organizations simply can’t afford the protracted legal battle. It’s less expensive for them to fold and just pay the
extortion money patent license fees, or to sell out to the patent holder (which is probably what Blackboard really wanted from Desire2Learn). All that’s left in the market is for the big companies to cut cross-licensing deals with each other. Whatever you may think about the current innovation or lack thereof in educational technology, whatever we have now would have been crushed had Blackboard succeeded. That includes open source innovation. If a college president was told by her legal counsel that running a campus installation of WordPress with some education-specific modifications might violate a patent, what do you think the institutional decision about running WordPress would be?
So I went to war. I may have been just some shmoe working in the coal mines of a public university system, but dammit, I was going to organize. I translated the legalese of the patent into plain English so that everybody could see how ridiculous it was. I started a Wikipedia page on the History of Virtual Learning Environments so that people could record potential prior art against the patent. Mostly, I wrote about what I was learning about patents in general and Blackboard’s patents in particular. I wrote a lot. If you look down at the tag cloud at the bottom of the blog page, you’ll see that “Blackboard-Inc.” and “edupatents” are, to this day, two of the most frequently used tags on e-Literate.
And then an amazing thing happened. People listened. Not just the handful of edubloggers who were my new community, but all kinds of people. The entries on the Wikipedia page exploded in a matter of days. Every time Blackboard’s Matt Small gave a statement to some news outlet, I was asked to respond. I began getting invited to speak at conferences and association meetings for organizations that I never even knew existed before. Before I knew it, my picture was in freakin’ USA Today. e-Literate‘s readership suddenly went off the charts. In a weird way, I owe the popularity of the blog and the trajectory of my career to Blackboard and Matt Small.
And with that, I finally found my purpose. I won’t pretend that the community outrage and eventual outcome of the patent fight were mostly due to me—there were many, many people fighting hard, not the least of which were John Baker and Desire2Learn—but I could tell that I was having an impact, in part because of the ferocity with which Matt Small attempted to get me into trouble with my employers. With the blog, I could make things happen. I could address systemic issues. It isn’t a good vehicle for everything, but it works for some things. That’s why, more often than not, the best question to ask yourself when reading one of my blog posts is not “What is Michael really trying to say?” but “What is Michael really trying to do?” A lot of the time, I write to try to influence people to take (or not take) a particular course of action. Sometimes it’s just one or a couple of particular people who I have in mind. Other times it may be several disparate groups. For me, the blog is a tool for improving education, first and foremost. Improvement only happens when people take action. Therefore, saying the right things isn’t enough. If my writing is to be worth anything, it has to catalyze people to do the right things.
Of course, it doesn’t always work. Once Blackboard gave up on their patent assertion, I tried to rally colleges and universities to take steps to protect against educational patent assertion in the future. There was very little interest. Why? For starters, it was easier for them to vilify Blackboard than it was to confront the much more complex reality that our patent system itself is deeply flawed. But also, the universities that were in the best position to take affirmative steps harbored fantasies of being Stanford and owning a piece of the next Google. Addressing the edupatent problem in a meaningful way would have been deeply inconvenient for those ambitions and forced them to think hard about their intellectual property transfer policies. With the immediate threat over, there was no appetite for introspection on college campuses. The patent suit was dropped, Michael Chasen eventually left the company, Matt Small was moved into another role, and life has gone on. I suspect that somewhere in some university startup incubator is a student who was still in middle school when the edupatent war was going on and is filing patent applications for a “disruptive” education app today. Cue the teaser for the sequel, “Lawyers for the Planet of the Apes.”
Meanwhile, my blogging had raised my profile enough to get me out of SUNY and land me a couple of other jobs, both of which taught me a great deal about the larger systemic context and challenges of ed tech but neither of which turned out to be a long-term home for me (which I knew was likely to be the case at the time that I took them). But at the second job in particular, I got too busy with work to blog as regularly as I wanted to. It really bothered me that I had built up a platform that could make a difference and was largely unable to do anything with it. So I decided to try to turn it into a group blog. The blogosphere had changed by then. The power law had really taken hold. There were a handful of bloggers who got most of the attention, and it was getting harder for new voices to break in. So I decided to invite people who maybe didn’t (yet) have the same platform that they deserved but who regularly taught me important things through their writing to come and blog on e-Literate, writing whatever they liked, whenever they liked, however often they liked. No strings attached. I’m proud to have posts here from people like Audrey Watters, Bill Jerome, David White, Kim Thanos, and Laura Czerniewicz, among others. Most of the people I invited wrote one or a few posts and then moved on to other things. Which was fine. I wasn’t inviting them because I wanted to build up e-Literate. I was inviting them because I wanted to expose more people to their good work. That’s something that we still try to do when we can. For example, the analysis that Mike Caulfield did raising doubts about some of the Purdue Course Signals research was hugely important to the field of learning analytics. I’m proud to have had the opportunity to draw attention to it.
Like I said, most of the bloggers wrote a few pieces and then moved on. Most. One of them just kept hanging around, like a relative you invite to dinner who never gets the hint when it’s time to leave. As with many of the others, I had not really met Phil Hill before and mainly knew him through his writing. Before long, he was writing more blog posts on e-Literate than I was. And—please don’t tell him I told you this—I love his writing. Phil is more of a natural analyst than I am. He has a head for details that may seem terribly boring in and of themselves but often turn out to have important implications. Whether he is digging through discrepancies on employee numbers to call BS on D2L’s claims of hypergrowth (and therefore their rationale for all the investment money and debt they are taking on) or collaborating with WCET’s Russ Poulin on an analysis of how the Federal government’s IPEDs figures are massively misreporting the size of online learning programs, he consistently goes dumpster diving and comes back with gold. At the same time, he shares my constitutional inability to restrain myself from saying something when I see something that I think is wrong. This is what, for example, led him to file a public records request for information that definitively showed how few students Cal State Online was reaching for all the money that was spent on the program. For the record, Cal State is a former consulting client of Phil’s. As consultants in our particular niche, any critical post that we write of just about anyone runs the risk of alienating a potential client. Anyway, Phil is now co-publisher of e-Literate. The blog is every bit as much his as it is mine.
And so e-Literate continues to evolve. When I look at Phil’s list of our top 20 posts from 2014, it strikes me that there are a few things we are trying to do with our writing that I think are fairly unusual in ed tech reporting and analysis at the moment:
- We provide critical analysis and long-form reporting on ed tech companies. There are lots of good pieces written by academic bloggers on ed tech products or the behavior of ed tech companies, but many of them are essentially cultural studies-style critiques of either widely reported news items or personal experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture without some supplementation. On the other hand, the education news outlets break stories but don’t do as much in-depth analysis as one would hope for. Because Phil and I have eclectic backgrounds, we have some insight into how these companies work that academics or even reporters often don’t. We’ve been doing this long enough that we have a lot of contacts who are willing to talk to us so, even though we’re not in the business of breaking stories, we sometimes get important details that others don’t. Also, as you can tell from this blog post (if you’ve made it this far), we’re not afraid of writing long pieces.
- We provide critical analysis and long-form reporting on colleges’ and universities’ (mis)adventures in ed tech. One of things that really bugs me about the whole ed tech blogging and reporting world is that some of the most ferocious critics of corporate misbehavior are often strangely muted on the dysfunction of colleges and universities and completely silent on the dysfunction of faculty. I’m as proud of our work digging into the back room deals of school administrators that circumvent faculty governance or the ways in which faculty behavior impedes progress in areas like better learning platforms or OER as I am of our analysis of corporate misbehavior.
- We demystify. I was particularly honored to be invited to write a piece on adaptive learning for the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT tends to take a skeptical view of ed tech, so I took their invitation as validation that at least some of the writing we do here is of as much value to the skeptics as to the enthusiasts. When I write a piece about a vendor and I get compliments on it from both people inside the company and people who despise the company, I know that I’ve managed to explain something in a way that clarifies while letting readers make their own judgments. A lot of the coverage of ed tech tends to be either reflexively positive or reflexively negative, and in neither case do we get a lot of details about what the product is, how it actually works, and how people are using it in practice.
One other thing that I feel good about on e-Literate and that I am completely amazed by is our community of commenters. We frequently get 5 or 10 comments on a given post (either in the WordPress comments thread or on Google+), and it’s not terribly uncommon for us to get 50 or even 100 comments on a post. And yet, I can count on one hand the number of times that we’ve ever had personalized attacks or unproductive behaviors from our commenters. I have no idea why this is so and take no credit for it. Even after ten years, I can’t predict which blog posts will generate a lot of discussion and which ones will not. It’s just a magic thing that happens sometimes. I’m still surprised and grateful every time that it does.
But of all the astonishing, wonderful things that have happened to me because of the blog, one of the most astonishing and wonderful is the way that it turned into a fulfilling job. When Phil asked me to join him as a consultant two years ago, I frankly didn’t give high odds that we would be be in business a for very long. I thought the most likely scenario was that we would fail, hopefully in an interesting way, and have some fun in the process. (Please don’t tell Phil I said that either.) But we have been not only pretty consistently busy with work but also growing the business about as fast as we would want it to grow, despite an almost complete lack of sales or marketing effort on our part. The overwhelming majority of our work comes to us through people who read our blog, find something helpful in what we wrote, and contacts us to see if we can help more. We’ve made it a policy to mostly not blog about our consulting except where we need to make conflict-of-interest disclosures, but sometimes I wonder if that’s the right thing to do. The tag line of e-Literate is “What We Are Learning About Online Learning…Online”, and a lot of what we are learning comes from our jobs. If anything, that is more true now than ever, given that so much of our work springs directly from our blogging. Our clients tend to hire us to help them with problems related to issues that we have cared about enough to write about. We also seem to gain more clients than we lose by writing honestly and critically, and our relationships with our clients are better because of it. People who come to us for help expect us to be blunt and are not surprised or offended when we offer them advice which is critical of the way they have been doing things.
Honestly, this is the most fulfilled that I have felt, professionally, since I left the classroom. I will go back to teaching at some point before I retire, but in the meantime I feel really good about what I’m doing for the first time in a long time. I get to work with schools, foundations, and companies on interesting and consequential education problems—and increasingly on systemic and cultural problems. I get to do a lot of it in an open way, with people who I like and respect. I get to speak my mind about the things I care about without fear that it will get me in (excessive) trouble. And I even get paid.
Who knew that such a thing is possible?