Scare tactics

OK, so clearly there’s a move on in the world of elearning conferences and events to shake academics out of our usual torpor.  As everyone knows, we don’t have much to do, and what we do pull off shows not a skerrick of imagination or even rudimentary competence.

So let’s get the email about Blended Learning 2012 out of the way first.  The event seems like a reasonable affair, but it’s clear that the pricing structure doesn’t anticipate someone like me getting along.  Seriously, $2,499 for a two-day event?  Digging a little further it turns out that the target audience is a bit more elevated.  “This event,” purrs the website, “has been specifically researched and designed for … ”

Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors, Directors of Learning and Teaching, Heads of Schools, Directors of IT, Heads of M-Learning, Heads of E-Learning, LMS Implementation Managers, Heads of Flexible Learning and Heads of Blended Learning

$2,499 is obviously everyone’s idea of a reasonable two-day expense at that level. Interestingly, this sum would go most of the way towards buying an entire semester of teaching at adjunct rates for a tutorial’s worth of students.  In fact, set against this, two days of executive conference attendance would want to provide some pretty staggering insights into elearning to get a similar return on investment.

But the real problem is that despite the fact that I’m not any of the above, the email was personally addressed to me and the subject line was this:

Kate, are you designing your course to appeal to the modern student?

Well, gosh, no.  Was I supposed to?  But since you asked, I design all my courses by looking at nineteenth century photographs of pinched and miserable schoolchildren with chalk and slate tablets, and I go from there.

The thing is, if you’re inviting me to something that costs $2,499, you really don’t want to know about courses I design or the students I design them for. You want to know about budgets I control, and that’s why you’re selling the vendor tickets to this networking event at an even more impressive $3,399, so they can hang out with the VP-IT and the CIO.

But if you persist in directing this email to the trenches, then you do need to understand how many of our research projects started with internal seed funding not much more than this, and how many institutional teaching awards offer prizes less than this.

Which brings me to the other resistable offer in this week’s email. This one came in an email from Campus Review, the weekly higher education magazine* that describes itself as  Australia’s:

only dedicated higher education magazine written for the sector by an independent voice. Written with editorial integrity by respected journalists, and strongly focused on issues relevant to the sector including teaching and learning, technology, management, finance, recruitment, conferences and industry events, Campus Review is in touch with its readers.

It’s a bit of a performance to remember the password to CR, but I’ve always appreciated it as a source of credible, sensible coverage of Australia’s higher education news.

So I was genuinely surprised to discover that CR were emailing to check whether I’m “ready for the demands of the Facebook generation”, and on the presumption that I’m not, to invite me to a Blackboard webinar that will help me catch up to the realities of modern life.  (Just a note to marketing: I live with the Facebook generation.  They’re currently 10-12 years old, and they’re Directioners.  If you don’t know what I mean by this, do look it up.)

The painful irony of this communication is hard to overstate.  I don’t mean to single out any one LMS, but Blackboard really aren’t renowned among either educators or students for the engaging nature of their social tools.  It does seem as though they’re now having to tackle the increasing tolerance of their client institutions for platform solutions that include compensatory social tools alongside the campus LMS.  Or, as Blackboard would like us to see it:

As institutions grow they develop a complex ecosystem of diverse platforms, this becomes a roadblock to delivering a customised student experience and institutional agility. Student’s [sic] expectations are high, they assume you will deliver 24/7 service, Facebook-type eLearning interfaces, and course materials to their mobile devices. Benchmarking for this is now too long a process, seeking out proven practices and implementing them without delay is the only way to keep agile and ready for change.

This is a genuinely subtle proposition, presented as a planning emergency. I’m sure TEQSA would be interested to read that Blackboard have now decided that Australian higher education can no longer afford the time it takes to benchmark.

The short version of the invite is this: because the terrible design of social tools native to the typical LMS has encouraged faculty and  institutions towards a more open-minded ecosystemic approach, we now need to know more about all of Blackboard’s other tools that will deliver us from the messy solutions we devised to deliver us from the campus LMS in the first place.

This is complicated enough.  But what I’m really trying to figure out is why this opportunity was presented to me as such an antagonising email from Campus Review.  I understand that they have many commercial sponsors, as well as all their academic subscribers, but I also can’t help noticing that one of their current lead articles is a feature on academic conflict of interest in relation to commercial partnerships, to which I say: right backatcha.

A little while ago, I suggested that a company that had acquired a controlling stake in the critical infrastructure of the small Australian higher education sector would operate discreetly.  I’m now less sure that this is the case, and I’m genuinely uncomfortable at the revelation that the CR subscriber list has proved to be such an obvious commercial asset to the national Blackboard getting-to-know-you strategy.  Or have I missed something?

I’d really welcome a clarification from anyone at all on this, but in the meantime here’s my plea to anyone else who’s planning to send me a faux personalised email alerting me to the “Facebook-type” tendencies of “the modern student”: please stop telling me how to do my job, and please stop these disingenuous attempts at telling me that I don’t understand how the modern world works.  I do, really I do.  It is my absolute privilege to meet and work with “the modern student” every single day, and if you ever want to bring your vendors along to find out how we’re all getting along together (and how we’re already using Facebook-type free public tools to do it), they’re welcome to pay us handsomely for the opportunity, and we’ll put it towards something worth promoting.

* UPDATE: Yesterday I described CR as a weekly newsletter, and created the wrong impression for non-Australian readers that it normally comes out as an email, and the Blackboard advertisement was just included in that.  So I’ve clarified that CR is a weekly web-based higher ed magazine in Australia, and the email that I received from CR was on the single topic of the Blackboard webinar, headed “Are You Ready For The Demands of the Facebook Generation?”  I opened it because I was genuinely interested to know CR’s views in the context of this question. My objection to the tone of the webinar promotion is aimed at Blackboard; my confusion about CR’s reponsibility for the email and its header is that I think it’s at odds with their statement on independence.  Surely Blackboard can send their own emails?

11 thoughts on “Scare tactics

  1. That $2499 fee is also $2499 more than I am getting in targeted support to design a new course for my “modern” students in which I hope to use a pretty wide range of tools from wikis to archival material. I get a variety of these faux ‘invitations’ too, and like you I find the endless chorus of corporate rhetoric about us as inert dinosaurs patronizing as well as disingenuous.

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    1. Rohan
      I’m so sorry this response is late–I just found your comment in my spam queue, by chance. A warm welcome to the deckchairs. I couldn’t agree more about how straightforwardly patronizing all this is. I wonder why they don’t fix it? Best, Kate.

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  2. I’m not sure how you got from a Blended Learning Conference Invite to an attack on an invitation to free Blackboard webinar promoted in a newsletter that is written for a wide audience. Many of the readers are not as expert as yourself, and unfortunately we have no mechanism with CR to more narrowly target placement of these materials. I apologize if that caused offense, none was intended.
    Also I think that your attack on Blackboard’s social capabilities may be a bit one sided. One blogger/critic is not necessarily representative of the experience of every participant in the class. As a counterpoints to Dr. Lane’s posting, which you’ve highlighted. There have been over a thousand new people who joined the class since she made her post about leaving the bonkopen MOOC. There have been thousands of blogs, tweets, and discussions going on. Anytime you put 4000 people together from around the world, it will take some time for a community to gel and for people to get up to speed on the tools. On the CourseSites team we’ve also been mindful and open about the ways we’re optimizing the course design, features and experience based on the feedback from participants. We have also tried to emphasize that we are providing a hub for collaboration and sharing and not trying to recreate all of Facebook, WordPress and Google plus.

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    1. Hi John
      Thanks so much for this comment. You’re right that it’s important to be fair, and certainly there are people who haven’t commented as vehemently as Lisa on the issues related to social learning within environments that are increasingly organised around content and assessment. It’s also important to be fair to the expertise of colleagues who work in LMS design, and I apologise if this post was disrespectful. Actually, my thought is the same as yours, that the platform model itself is emerging because there’s no good business case for LMS designers to enhance internal tools when there are better options for those functions available to educators and their students for free, so as you say, there’s no reason to “recreate all of Facebook, WordPress and Google plus.” Platforming as a response to this is a win for everyone, but I think it’s a win that was initiated by users trying to find ways of improving a situation that wasn’t working for learners, followed by a series of mutually-aware adjustments that edtech and educators have since been making to each other’s choices.
      The CR issue is a different one. The notice about the webinar didn’t appear as a newsletter item within CR itself, which is where sponsor content often appears, but as an email that appeared to come directly from CR. So the straightforward impression created by the way this channel was used is that CR are specifically communicating with us on behalf of Blackboard, and you can’t get much narrower than that. (A colleague who saw the email said: “So Blackboard bought CR now?”) I’m still surprised by this, in terms of the sensitivity of Blackboard’s now exceptionally dominant position in the Australian higher education market, and CR’s role as a source of commentary and reporting on edtech in our sector.

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      1. “Also I think that your attack on Blackboard’s social capabilities may be a bit one sided. One blogger/critic is not necessarily representative of the experience of every participant in the class.”

        So is John assuming that Kate’s commentary on LMS social tools is purely based on reading Lisa Lane’s blog, despite Kate’s teaching experiences using at least two well-known LMS solutions and her obvious understanding of the subject? My reading is that Kate does understand the nature and usage of legacy LMS social tools, and she has used Lisa’s post and the commentary following to illustrate the situation in her previous post – not that Kate is basing her understanding on reading that one post.

        Furthermore, I’m not sure that the insinuation in calling Lisa a “blogger/critic” are very helpful. Lisa raised some very important points in her post, and there is a reason that so many people jumped into the commentary. Go read her post – it was very direct, but I’d submit that there were no unfair points in Lisa’s description, and to my knowledge none of Lisa’s points have been refuted. I think it would suffice to just call Lisa a “blogger”.

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  3. Whoever writes the atrocious copy for either campaigns, don’t hire them as writing tutors. fyi as someone who diligently trolls both highered and ed-tech blogs as well as online teaching groups, I can (however informally and anecdotally) assure you that Lisa is only one of many. Consider this: it’s an ed-tech/elearning point both Jonathon and Lisa agree on.

    As for CR, I am only just now adding it to my reader but am all too familiar with how advertising and edu-biz advertisers have taken over both US highered media.

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  4. Hi Vanessa,
    I think you’re right that the key issue is the need for higher education to be able to hope that editorial independence in our small number of specialist trade publications is what it’s claimed to be. Mostly I think edtech companies are as appreciative of this as we are, even though they’re keen to build relationships with individuals who offer comment in public, whom they perceive as having some kind of impact. Audrey Watters and Phil Hill can certainly comment to this effect. But again, that seems fair enough to me.
    So I like that John Fontaine cared to write, and as I said in my last post I liked that both Curt Bonk and the Blackboard Course Sites team engaged with Lisa’s blog. But all this seems to me to be out in the open. I think when without explanation one partner does the promoting for the other, in such a sensitive situation as ours, we can all afford to wonder exactly that happened, and why.
    Nice to see you here — thanks for the terrific work you continue to do for adjuncts.
    Kate

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    1. I appreciated Fontane responding too, although there is a niggling voice saying, aha they set an alert feed. Fair enough: I do the same on a number of highered topics. A recent IHE ed-tech column on Bpnk/CourseSites “MOOC” (irony intended) did sound like it was written by Bb not an independent journalist. If exchanges open discussion, remind corporation that we are not passive consumers and, as the grunts in the trenches, expect to have a voice, then so much for the better.

      And the adjuncts: it’s related. Changes in the higher ed workplace and workforce will affect them first and probably most drastically. Mine canaries. Keeping up-to-date and informed is a smarter coping strategy than denial.

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      1. Vanessa
        This question about the link between adjunct experience and the wide, systemic shifts in higher education (including the kinds of changes Blackboard are evangelising in their webinar) really preoccupies me.

        The world of higher education imagined by marketing is one that doesn’t include an adjunct workforce. When that vision insinuates itself into strategic planning, this omission becomes really serious.

        Practical example: scenario planning for institutional LMS transition very rarely has professional development for adjunct colleagues appropriately scoped. If they’re not really there, we don’t have to support their training. Magical thinking.

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  5. Those Blended Learning people are a right pain. They send out hard-copy ‘invitations’ too. All of us mangers get them, and all of us throw them in the bin. Even if our PD budget was going to stretch to two days at one of their bunfights, there’s no way we’d want to spend it there.
    And John, as an education design manager, I have found Bb’s discussion and communication tools to be very clunky, especially if used in any kind of innovative way. But I think the issue for me, as a subscriber to Campus Review, is that I do not want CR to use my email address to advertise any product. I find that a very dodgy practice.

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  6. I’m curious to know how well they understand the market they’re seeking to service, particularly in relation to typical PD budgets. We have $600 per year per general staff member, so the key staff who are at the frontline of course design can’t get near this. That’s because it’s not what it claims to be — it’s got nothing to do with the practicalities of course design and everything to do with executive networking. In which case why not just hire a corporate box at the races and be done with it?

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