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News & Views

not k12 online
By Terry Freedman
Created on Wed, 3 Sep 2008, 19:51

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Intro: I'm a self-appointed critical friend

supernotk12The K12 Online Conference was a nice idea when it was first launched in 2006. It was, and still is, a great resource for teachers exploring the potential of educational technology, especially Web 2.0 applications. Now, its organisers are also organising a Not K12 Online Conference. Except that it's not an unconference but an anti-conference. Maybe. Confused? You're not the only one.

I've listened to a podcast about this twice, and this is -- how can I put it diplomatically? -- not the best idea I've ever heard.

Towards the end of the podcast Bud Hunt says:

"If you think this is the worst idea you've ever heard of or the best idea let us know, leave a comment, we wanna be transparent, we wanna have those critical friends".

So, as a self-appointed critical friend I'm taking up Bud's invitation. I don't like the idea at all, and here are my reasons why.

What is the K12 Online Conference?

Just in case you haven't heard about the K12 Online Conference, here is a quick summary of what it looks like. Just like a physical conference, it takes place in a particular period, during which presentations in different strands are made available, partly at the same time, and partly chronologically. There are Keynote speakers, and leaders for each strand. And, just like any well-run conference, the presentations remain online ad infinitum. The keynote speakers are decided upon by the conveners of the conference, and the other presentations are selected from submissions which are evaluated according to a set of criteria by a blind review process.

A bit of a paradox is identified...

Now, if you think about it from a completely logical and dispassionate point of view, having an online conference that mimics a "real" conference makes no sense whatsoever. Unlike in a physical conference, there are no physical limitations on the number of presentations you could host. So, naturally, there have been rumblings by various people about that.

"Why not make it completely open?" ,

they say, in effect.

That, apparently, is what Bud Hunt asked at the recent NECC conference:

"Why do I need K12 Online to publish my presentation? Why couldn't I just go off and do it on my own, or something like that?",

according to Darren Kurupatwa

... And several mistakes made

And here is where the K12 Online crew made their first mistake, in my opinion. The correct answer would have been:

"Yes, you are completely right. There is nothing to stop you publishing your own presentation, and you certainly do not need this conference. However, our conference aims to plug a particular gap, by targetting a particular type of teacher, and so opening it up would not be appropriate."

Unfortunately, they decided that they ought to look into opening it up, and hence the idea of the "Not K12 Online Conference" was born, with Bud heading up a committee to look into what this might look like.

Now, nobody can doubt the conveners' passion, and they admit themselves that they have no idea what this "non-conference" might look like, but the podcast throws up all sorts of half-baked notions and paradoxes:

"The aim of the non-conference is to give everyone a chance to participate."

Well, they already do have a chance to participate. You can get started with a free blog in about 5 minutes tops, and web space is so inexpensive these days that just about anyone can start their own online presence. In fact, they could start their own Ning community and have it all.

OK, people may not feel confident to do that, and in any case doing a presentation under the auspices of a well-known entity is a good way of ensuring that it will be looked at by people other than you and your mum and dad. So, does "giving everyone a chance to participate" mean a kind of free-for-all, with no restrictions?

Um, no. Wes Fryer (I think) says:

"There will still be some boundaries and some guidelines".

Why? Either everyone can participate or they can't. Or are you saying that people can participate as long as they do so according to your rules?

In my last teaching job, the Headteacher called me into his office on my second day. He said:

"Terry, I just want you to know that I run a democracy here."

"Oh yes?", I replied.

"Yes", came the response. "You are free to agree with my decisions, or resign!"

Have the K12 conveners been to the same school of management?

Well, possibly not, because Darren says, a few moments later:

"There will never again be a voice that cannot be heard"

Great. So that means I have no worries then, right? Er, not quite. Darren again:

"How does the cream rise to the top?"

Cream? Oh, so there are going to be judgements involved, and the implication is that if my submission for the non-conference is rejected, I am definitely not the cream!

So what restrictions will be lifted? Wes states that the current 20 minute limit will go out of the window. Wait! Does that mean that we could end up seeing presentations appearing that last for 3 hours? I like the 20 minute limitation. In fact, it's too long: if you can't say what you need to in 5 minutes, you really don't have a grip on your subject!

Now, I'm not saying all this to ridicule the people involved in any way. They themselves repeat over and over that this is full of contradictions. That's why they have set up the committee: to see if Bud and his colleagues can sort this out into something coherent that makes objective sense.

But in my opinion, the second  mistake they made was to make this podcast available at all. By all means publish a blog where you put forward a few half-thought-out ideas and invite opinions. Or even make a short podcast. But I really don't think a 20 minute podcast of a discussion in which the participants are, in effect, thinking out loud does anybody any favours. A blog or a wiki would have been fine; a podcast is too difficult to comment on. In getting the few quotes I have used in this post, it has taken me ages to go backwards and forwards trying to find the right snippet, and then stopping and starting the playback whilst I typed up what exactly was said. Even so, the quote from Bud about wanting critical friends is not absolutely precise, but it's near enough for me to have not changed the sense of it at all.

Making a long-ish podcast of this nature is brave, yes. But is it sensible? I'm not so sure.

The third mistake they made was calling it "Not K12 Online", which was an error of judgement for two reasons they may not have been aware of.

Firstly, last year I was approached by three separate people asking me if I would work with them to set up an alternative online conference, because they didn't like certain things about K12 Online. I declined all three invitations.

However, when I got wind of the fact that there was something called "Not K12 Online", I immediately assumed that someone had gone ahead with an alternative event, for negative rather than positive reasons. Then, of course, I discovered that the K12 people themselves had come up with the concept. Unfortunately, the negative connotation has never quite left me. So in PR terms I think the name was a bit of a mistake.

Secondly, in a sense it was also a mistake because there used to be a satirical TV programme in the UK called "Not the 9-o'clock News", and The Times once produced a spoof edition called "Not The Times". You can read about both of these here. It is hard to hear the term "Not K12 Online" without associating it with some sort of joke.

So, to summarise so far, I think the following mistakes have been made:

1. Even considering the idea of expanding the conference beyond its original remit.

2. Making a podcast about it before they had fully thought it through.

3. Calling it "Not K12 Online".

What to do about it?

I think the K12 people have several options open to them, none of them mutually exclusive:

  • Ignore this post. That would be their prerogative.

  • Tell me I'm wrong. I am very happy to be corrected: if there is a real need for a non-conference I'd love to know what it is, and if they don't think they've made mistakes, I'd be interested in that too. I do not have a closed mind on these issues!

  • The one mistake that was not made by the K12 organisers was getting Bud Hunt involved. He has made a podcast about it which is coherent and logical. So, I hope they will make the most of this by letting Bud and his team get on with it.  He makes a more compelling case than they do, though I am still yet to be convinced.

    I don't know what the exact relationship is between Bud's committee and the rest of the K12 Online Conference, but I think his committee should be allowed to be as autonomous as possible. It will then be interesting to see what comes out of it.

My advice to Bud and his committee

For what it's worth, I offer these suggestions in the spirit of wanting to help rather than hinder. I don't believe in totally knocking something without attempting to put forward a few positive ideas. So here goes.
  • I think Not K12 Online is predicated on a completely undesirable premise: that we actually want anyone to have a voice, as Darren put it. Or at least, having had experience of people wasting my time with long rambling forum posts, emails, or whatever, sometimes including some quite insulting, if not offensive content, why would I want to help facilitate that?

    One of the primary duties of a conference organiser, surely, is to accept the responsibility of sifting through submissions in order to end up with what they think is the best. We may disagree with the final decisions, but the answer is to make the selection process better, or different, not dilute it or get rid of it all together. It all sounds too 1960s for me: if I wanted to be a hippy, I'd join a commune!

    So my advice here is to not open it up to anyone, but perhaps find a way of involving people who might have submitted a proposal to the main K12 Online Conference had the themes, or their expertise, or whatever been slightly different.

  • Alternatively, focus on virtual poster presentations, ie mini-presentations that serve to showcase a project or bring a particular event to people's attention.

  • Do not make it a space for presentations that didn't quite make it to the K12 Online Conference: nobody wants to be thought of as second best.
I await developments with interest.

What do you think? Please leave a comment.