Does the Web Hate School?

Full Disclosure: I am employed at Michigan State University’s College of Education as a web designer and application developer. The opinions I express on this blog are mine, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers or clients. Particularly this post.

Education generally falls behind every other sector in computer technology integration and internet use. A typical fast food employee uses a computer more during the day than a typical middle school student. (What are cash registers but custom computers?) At almost any business you can expect employees to use networked computers for everything from sales and inventory to customer service to internal work and communication.

But beyond simply using the box, private companies in every sector generally have up-to-date, professionally designed web sites that (at least try to) provide useful information or services to customers. Been to your or your kid’s school web site lately? Universities are usually “OK,” but they get worse as you go down.

In any other sector, you are likely to find online collaboration tools, meeting planners, digital resources for employees, use of messaging tools like internal e-mail (Exchange servers), private IM, Yammer/, internal wikis, public and private blogs… you get the idea.

But not in education.

Education is part of the problem, but it is not the whole problem. Many people talk about how teachers and schools fail to use computers and the internet well in their classrooms. Many schools treat the computer itself as a goal, rather than as a tool to do new things, or do old things better and faster. Teachers generally fall behind the private sector in computer literacy. Yes, all these things are true.

But we, we the tech sector, the web 2.7.4 crowd, we are part of the problem, too.

How often does a new tool support education? Offer suggestions or support for teachers? Provide educational pricing? Provide the EULA and Privacy Policy education legally requires?

The people who become teachers are often the people who did well in school, who see no reason to change anything because, to them, it works. In the tech world, “where did they drop out of school?” is a legitimate question. Your typical programmer has at least one degree in Computer Science, but the real success stories—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg—the ones who made real money, are drop outs. School didn’t work for them—for us—so what do we owe school?

When Yammer launched, they gave a simple business plan: for companies that wanted to “claim” and control their networks, they would charge $1 per month per user. A small start up might pay $5 to $20 a month. Even a big company is probably paying only a few hundred dollars per month. A university, on the other hand, could be stuck paying tens of thousands of dollars per month, or skipping the service entirely. Which do you think they’re likely to do?

What was Yammer’s response? “Our product […] is not geared toward educational institution [sic].”

Many schools have prohibitions against using Google services for anything work-related because, if you don’t pay foruse (update: Google Apps for Education is free, my bad) their educational services, their Terms of Use (read Section 11) could allow them to share sensitive student data.

You’re a school? You don’t matter. Only cool people matter.

Let’s change. Let’s remember that the community of “tech-savvy” users, while growing, is still a minority. Let’s encourage teachers and schools to use the tools we create, so people come out of school ready to use these tools.

It is possible. Ning is experimenting with education. But how do we make tools ed-friendly?

Fix your EULA and Privacy Policy, or provide a second one for education. Don’t be the next Google Chrome. (Frankly, everyone should be reconsidering their EULA right now. Why do some people need so many rights to my content?)

Offer suggestions to teachers. I know: it’s not really a priority. You’ve got bug fixing, paying customers, searching for VC, coming out with the next version. But it’s not terribly difficult. Got a user forum? Add a section for education. Got a wiki? Add an education page. Blog? Throw up a post for teachers once in a while, or better, get guest posts from teachers who use your tool.

Provide educational pricing. Schools have less money every year. If you can work out a deal to make your product free to schools, do it. But it’s not hard: just charge schools less. Think of this as an investment. If they use your product as students, they may well want to use it when they graduate and have to pay.

Or,* provide an ad-free version to schools*. This is the Ning method. If your business model doesn’t involve charging directly, be aware that schools often take issue with displaying ads to students. It’s the same investment as above: hook them young.

Schools lag on the internet because there is resistance on both sides: educators are reluctant to integrate new things into their curricula, and the new tools rarely give a damn about schools and students as users.

Changing the tech side won’t solve the problem. Schools need to adapt, too. (Where would you look for a Windows 95 computer if you needed one today? I’d check the local elementary school. It’s probably in a lab, or hidden in the back of a classroom.) Schools need to treat computers like tools, and the internet as a tool, and the tools we build on the internet as tools, and use those tools effectively. That will take time.

In the meantime, let’s try to reduce the resistance on our side, so when they come around, educators feel welcome.

Edit: I need to proofread better, even with angry rants.