Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Thinking about Thinking and about Educational Commerce--Interviews with Stephen Downes and Larry Augustin

While it becomes clear that Stephen Downes and I have different experiences and different opinions, my interview with him was quite fascinating and also illustrative of a principle about blogging and podcasting that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately.

Will Richardson has written and said many times that blogging starts with reading. What that means to me is that when I read other blogs, I am exposed to someone else's ideas, and it starts a creative process where I think about what they have written and can agree, disagree, or expand on their thoughts. Like Doc Searls says, blogging can be like tossing a snowball downhill--if an idea starts to gain speed, it will grow and expand, building on the original idea kernel. The magic of blogging is that it seems to allow for diverse and multiple voices to quickly combine and create innovative, compelling, feedback-rich threads of thought. So for me, blogging is ultimately about thinking, and I love thinking.

The interview with Stephen provided me with a lot of opportunity for thinking, and largely because he and I come from fairly different perspectives. Since two of my four children have had some homeschooling, you'll hear me try to mitigate what I think are some of the common perceptions about homeschoolers/homeschooling. But the issue that really has lingered with me for some days is the discussion on commercial companies and the educational system.

Granted, folks in Canada are probably more used to government-run solutions than we in the States, but it sorrows me to think--if Stephen is representative--that we have determined that the form and function of for-profit businesses forces them to make decisions which are not in the interests of anyone but themselves. I guess it sorrows me because it has partly become true, but also because we largely don't seem to be able to see beyond some current mindsets about business. There was a time when we really admired certain companies (HP and the "HP Way," for example), and in my mind it's been a long 15 years during which individual stock-trading seems to created a mindset that values only quarterly profits--and believes that profit is the one measure that benefits everyone.

Another sad trend in the commercial marketplace over same period of time has been the use of "lock-in" as a customer strategy. Granted, as customers demand lower prices and more value, "lock-in" looks attractive to the supplier because of the costs of marketing and acquiring customers is hard to shoulder on a single low-cost transaction--but it has given the proprietary software industry a pretty bad reputation in some areas, and deservedly so. Placing an emphasis on "lock-in" seems to directly minimize the effort to create a satisfied customer who continues doing business because of their positive experiences. Is there an alternative to "lock-in" when customers want more and more, but to pay less and less?

There is a fascinating opportunity for discussion here, especially in light of the other interview I want to point out, one I recorded with Larry Augustin on the business of Open Source, who is an angel investor and is on the board of a number of companies based on Open Source software. Because Free and Open Source software is so much at the heart of both the Internet and Web 2.0, it might seem that some of the core values of the movement would make their way back into the business world. Google may, in many ways, be the great test case of this, with their "don't be evil" motto, the general trust people place in them, and their willingness to give away services. But with increasing power and information will come the temptations and pressures to create financial gain in areas where there won't be general public agreement as to how Google should act. Can they keep to a high road and satisfy all their constituencies? It will be interesting to watch.

Some questions:
  • Do we believe that companies operate only on the pursuit of selfish interests? That would obviously be too broad a generalization, but Stephen gives the impression that no for-profit companies can be trusted.
  • Do we think that a free market, even with the problems we see today, ultimately produces the best long-term result?
  • While many talk about "selfish interest" being the driving force behind a free-market economy, might we not argue that "choice" and the freedom to make choices is just as compelling a rationale for the free market, and a better framework for providing moral guidance?
  • Is a government bureaucracy, like the one Stephen describes to handle all school purchases, just as likely to produce negative results as the free market? What would be lost with centralized decision-making and what would be gained?
  • Is there an alternative to commercial marketing to schools? Does the shilling of educational technology at trade show exhibition halls help or hurt schools and students?
  • Does it ultimately come down to just being a good/informed consumer?
  • What companies have you dealt with in the school market that have been "purpose-driven" or are ones that you trust? Are there many, or are there few?
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