Sunday, June 9, 2013

Asking the Ethical Question (and taking a risk assessment approach)

School is a weird place. Our kids aren't really given a choice around things like the materials/resources used. What this means to me is that there's an ethical question to be asked around just about every choice made in the classroom (especially regarding resources).

In this digital day and age, these questions are even more important. For a long time I've had this thing about MS Office. MS Office is used in "the real world" so that's what's taught in school. On the other hand, MS Office is taught at school which leads to lower training costs by the time they get to "the real world" - essentially meaning that the licensing costs of MS Office are insignificant compared to the training costs around other products. MS have that market pretty well sewed up on this front. Don't get me wrong - MS Office is actually a pretty cool product. I can achieve all sorts of really cool things in Excel that I definitely can't do in Google Spreadsheets and might be able to achieve in Open/Libre Office if I were to take weeks to learn their scripting language.

So there's a solid example of us turning a blind eye to vendor lock in i.e. risk. How many people needed retraining when MS Office switched to the ribbon interface? What's the people cost around more cloud-centric approaches such as 365? Or the frustration from various people trying to do what they were able to do in MS Office in the Google equivalents?

So there's a risk involved... How can you mitigate the risk? Usually this involves controlling what version of the software you're using. However, all of that older data is already locked into a particular proprietary format thus a particular piece of software. So, in a risk assessment approach, you would need to have a migration plan. How would you switch to an alternative? Do those older documents need to be written to or would it be okay if they could just be read? In which case, is PDF a way of lowering the amount of documents that would need to be converted? What would you convert those documents to? And given the discrepancies in format shifting, how would you handle quality control? i.e. making sure the documents still make sense. In these terms, MS Office is actually a great big ugly risk.

With Google the question becomes a bit more interesting. Google (GAFE - Google Apps For Education) along with Hapara's Teacher Dashboard makes for an incredibly compelling environment for the classroom. Seeing teachers with big tubs full of books is suddenly a thing of the past and teachers can comment on a students work while the students are working on it (rather than having to interrupt the student in order to have a look at their work and the inevitable disappointment from the student as suddenly there are red "suggestions" everywhere). It revolutionises the student/teacher relationship - learning and consultation can (but doesn't necessarily have to) happen at any time. Assignments and the like are more likely to be handed in on time as those blocks can be removed by a quick 2 minute conversation over the Internet.

But Google are a profitable entity with their bottom line first and foremost in their minds. With the migration of all products to Google+ (I noted my frustration last night about a quick trip to youtube resulting in a Google+ profile being set up), I envision GAFE changing significantly. It seems unlikely that Google would want to maintain a separate code base for all of their products for education and so I imagine they'd want to instead change Google+ to allow for educator's concerns to be catered to.

What would this look like? I imagine it would be a play on the fact that by necessity, a school is actually a legal guardian of the kids (without quite the same rights. i.e. you still need a legal guardian's permission to take a child off school grounds) and so could sign up the student to Google+ under an education account (the terms and conditions would likely have to change a little though given the unification of terms and conditions and the precedent of GAFE, I think those changes would be minimal). The teachers would then probably be in control of who could and couldn't see a particular student's circles/content.

This is probably something that few would object to. But if you do object, what is the alternative? What if Google make a change that you absolutely object to? They do have a tendency to do this regardless of what their users want... Suddenly turn on Google Wave, switching the Interface on whatever etc.

Is there a migration plan in place? For documents, OX Documents is looking pretty good - and it's Open Source. Email's relatively easy (roundcube?). Wordpress for a blogging platform... Most CMS's have plugins to enable youtube like functionality as well as providing better than Google sites functionality. All this needs is development around a way to unify them into an education friendly environment - the teacher dashboard piece of the puzzle. Something that gives the teacher a view into the student's work without having to log into each account individually and also to have controls around deleted things (for control of abuse and the like). Resources toward development of this piece of the puzzle would mean that a whole lot of concerns could be catered for. Concerned about the way privacy is going in a particular country? Host the entire stack within your own country. Want to add another piece to the puzzle? Well... you're in control. Ditto if you want to remove something... You don't have to have advertising... contextual or otherwise! It'd be a bit like wordpress. It's the same platform hosted by lots of different entities.

To me the alternative is looking a whole lot more compelling (even if it's likely a few years off even if work starts now - for starters OX Office isn't even close to complete). But it's an exit strategy. A way of getting all of those things that are working now without being hooked to the whims, vendor lock in and inherit risks involved in dealing with a commercial entity who may or may not necessarily work within your classroom's best interest. Investment now could save a whole lot of pain in the future.

So even if you don't have a workable migration plan now, I think it's in a school's best interest to have a migration plan in the works (if only we could rely on the Ministry of Education for this). Looking to the future and mitigating the cost to learning is in everyone's (except perhaps Google's) best interest.

Is it ethical not to have a plan in place? Imagine the very extreme - it's deemed that giving students pain killers leads to less distraction and so is good in the classroom. Only, the use of drugs leads to dependence... knowing this, has the ethical question been raised/asked? If the reliance is not on the body but more on information (personal or otherwise), does the context of that question effect the question? Yes - I realise that's all hyperbole in support of a position... it may well be the answer is "pick your battles"... which is a valid answer. But the question needs to be raised before drawing that conclusion.

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