Saturday, 14 March 2015

Monitored By Pearson: Business Bias in Education

NB After writing this post I received some constructive criticism that this post was biased. I wasn't sure whether to delete, review and amend or leave as it was.

I have decided to leave the post as it was originally published, but would be grateful if you could take a moment to read this post Monitored By Pearson Post: Thank You and An Apology.

Also, in an attempt to balance up the discussion below, I would welcome you to check some of these posts "Startup Education," "StartupEduChat Meets #EdTechBridge" "Sales Matters in EdTech: Ineffective Tech" I hope this note goes some way to apologise for and balance up any bias below.

I'd like the thank Sarah Nagel for her valuable insight and apologise again for any bias.

Here's the post as it was originally published...

Feeling more than a little shell shocked from educator comments and their reaction to the fact that Pearson monitors Social Media, I thought I'd explore the area of concern. I also consider some of the undertones that I believe to be at work here... which can make engaging with educators really quite difficult for companies.

NB I would usually include Tweets and other images from social media to back up any observations but I did not wish for the label of "Creepy" to be attached to my Tweets or blog so have omitted any Tweets or imagery from this post.

Background: #MonitoredByPearson
Last night I noticed that #Pearson was trending on Twitter and I wondered if this was the Education supplier and, sure enough, it was.

I checked to see why they were trending and from what I could understand... The issues were;

1) That Pearson Monitors Social Media
2) Their monitoring activities found a student who was sharing test questions on Twitter
3) They highlighted this to the education authorities

I am sure I must be missing something here because this has created a backlash from the educator community... but these are normal business practices which most companies employ.

Companies like Sprout Social are hugely respected because they do a great job of helping to keep brands close to their customers through the analytics they provide.

I've also seen a lot of educators use tools like (@Commun_it), is this not a form of monitoring social media?

Business Bias in Education?
If I am not missing something from this story, the only thing that differentiates Pearsons from other companies is that they work in the education, although there may well be some other underlying issues.

Rightly or wrongly Pearson are involved with these PARCC tests, a system of testing which I presume policy makers and administrators either created and/or were consulted on the development and approved the content. Administrators will also have signed off on Pearson being the supplier.

So Pearson notices an issue with a product they are involved with on social media and alerted their partners they work with.

  • Is this unacceptably outrageous behaviour on the part of an education supplier? 
  • Or are there some very serious issues with educator/supplier relationships?

I wonder if there would be the same level of outcry about Pearsons' ability to keep tests secure if the story leaked the other way round ie "A Student Tweets exam question which goes undetected by Pearsons"

Maybe we can test this by changing the context, what if we encourage educators to ask;

If the exact same scenario was played out, but it was a fellow teacher who saw the Tweet and raised the alarm, would there be the same level of outrage?

What if we changed the situation to a more traditional form of students sharing test questions?

If the answer is "Yes," no problem. End of post. Thanks for reading. Have a nice day! If "no" feel free to continue reading.

Pearson Vs ClassDojo
Last November ClassDojo came under fire as a result of a New York Times article that went viral. Educators started to discuss how safe student data was with the organisation. But what happened with the issue on this occasion?

ClassDojo benefited from their hard work in getting everything right... A product that works, good price for educators (Free, Yay!), and one of the best examples of community outreach that you're likely to see from an education supplier.

The army of ClassDojo advocates and fans rallied round and defended the company in the way that their brand deserves, and no real harm appears to have been done.

There was none of that for Pearson last night, why not? Was it because;

1) Not all Pearson products and services have achieved "Product Market Fit" in the way that ClassDojo has? Maybe not. But it can't be an easy thing to pull of with testing and assessments given the number of stakeholder views to consider (See below)

2) Individual educators decide if they want to download and use ClassDojo, whereas most (and possibly all) decisions that are made regarding assessments are taken at a district level.

However, while edcuators can't influence decisions around the assessments the school/districts use, this decision affects how they operate in the classroom as they have to teach to this particular curriculum/test.

3) That the testing system used, which has been approved by policy makers, is just generally unpopular.

Educators may get in a bit of bother if they criticise their employers about these decisions, so it's a lot easier and safer to criticise any external suppliers who are involved with the tests.

4) Pearson is the largest education supplier in the world so is an obvious target for any anti-business sentiments in education. As John McEnroe put it

"Everybody loves success but they hate successful people" 

We see this with Microsoft being attacked when Apple and Google were the young upstarts... but as these brands have grown they've also come under fire.

The opportunity to attack a big company in education came along and people took it. Even if it did mean posting some questionable content on Digital Learning Day.

No One Gets Fired For Buying IBM
If there is this level of resentment about this brand then there is always the option to go elsewhere... but this is one of the conunderums of education, the sector is "risk averse" (Something that I lay squarely at the feet of our politicians and policy makers due to their lack of trust and respect for our teachers).

Regardless of who or what is responsible, the people who commission these services will be less likely to be criticised for going with the biggest supplier... no matter how bad the service or how good the alternative looks.

I have heard a few comments from educators like "XYZ is a rubbish supplier, but they are the biggest so we use them" What? Seriously? How Crazy Is That! But that's what happens when politicians don't respect educators... there's fear around taking any riskier decisions, so people play it safe.

This is by no means confined to education! A fantastic example that is put across extremely well is Doug Edward's description of Google's thought process when making purchasing decisions for a new CRM system in the companies early days (See Appendix 2 on P34: What Would Google Do?)

So the obvious answer might be "choose a different supplier," but the current culture does not encourage these kinds of risks being undertaken by educators. This is understandable as it is our young people's education we're talking about here, so any changes need to be well thought out, thoroughly tested and safe... and start ups sure ain't a safe bet.

The irony here is this risk averse culture means that many a small startup with a potentially game changing idea will starve to death, and companies like Pearson grow to dominate the market.

With every startup that goes to the wall, Pearson becomes a safer and safer bet, educators risk aversion increases, this makes it harder and harder for startups to thrive. It becomes a perpetual cycle.

"Oh That startup looks interesting... I'll use it when more educators use it" may be the thought process. But other educators have exactly the same idea, few people sign up and it's good night to the startup... bye bye to another good idea.

A Testing Supplier?
Can you imagine the many headed beast that an awarding body or test supplier has to be?

Consider the number of hats these organisations need to wear... They need to keep governments, education policy makers, academics, employers, admins, teachers, parents and students happy. As if that wasn't bad enough, the curriculum and tests need to be flexible enough to cater for a pace of change like we've never seen before.

Name me a testing system, whether one that the government or a supplier has created that all those stakeholders are happy with. None come to mind? OK can you name me one that all educators are happy with? Given that some educators advocate the scrapping of all testing, this sure sounds like you'd be playing to a tough crowd!

My guess is that the only country that can do this is Finland, where the educators are trusted to put their own assessments together.

If you know of any others let me know... I'd love to get my CV/Resume over to that company!

Product Market Fit!
My faviourite topic! It is my opinion that a lot of the negativity towards Pearson and other commercial companies in education isn't because they make a profit, but more a case that educators are tired of handing their hard fought for and ever deminishing budgets over for products that promise much in the presentation to the school... but fails to deliver in the classroom.

Again we can test this. Pearson might be the most profitable education company in the world, but Apple is the most profitable company in the world... ever. I wonder how many of the educators who were advocating "Keep big business out of education" last night use any Apple products in any aspect of their teaching. Some may even be fans, evangalists and proponents who join some of the ipad EdChats or topics.

If the issue is about business and profit would educators be happy for Pearson and Apple to leave the classroom? Or if they had to choose only one would they choose the one that made the most profit?

Do educators who have a "Grr get these horrible nasty greedy money grabbing corporate fat cats" out of education attitude think this of all profit making companies' tools? Or are their faviourite tools exempt?

In my opinion, the real issue here is that process of engagement and sales process is so broken in education that it beggars belief! This creates a chain reaction that leads to this kind of negative attitude.

It might surprise some educators but this frustration isn't unique to you. I spent months looking for products and services that have achieved "Product Market Fit" to represent because I want to be responsible for introducing bad products into the classroom as much as educators what to be using poor products.

The few organisations that I did find, my skill set was not up scratch as my traditional sales experience is pretty much obsolete for these companies.

No Engagement
I have now found a number of organisations that I would love to work with and have done enough to re-skill from traditional sales to community management, so they are keen for me to work with them.

But I'm not working with them yet. Why not?

Because when I know that I can send an update out to educators and only get a few meaningful replies back, there is no way that I could deliver value to these organisations... at least not without making lots of those awful cold calls and continually send spammy emails that educators don't like. And I refuse to do this, and this isn't the engagement these startups are interested in either.

#Cmgr Outreach
New forms of engagement are needed, this is something that I am working on. If successful these ideas could have a big impact... and might make all stakeholder happy. It could mean;

Educators adopt new products and ideas (That actually work!) without a single phone call being made, any growth would be through word of mouth referrals. This would hugely reduce overheads for suppliers as less of a traditional sales presence would be required.

However this plan is extremely ambitious. Too ambitious to work? Probably. I am not sure if I have the skills required, neither am I convinced that the level of engagement and collaboration from the educator community would be there.

If there is one thing that my own experiences have taught me it's that educators don't seem to want to collaborate much with suppliers, the nature of some of the comments about #Pearson on Twitter last night kind of reiterates this.

But this lack of engagement and collaboration absolutely 100% impacts on the quality of the products that suppliers are able to deliver into the classroom. Catch 22?

Back to Today's "To Do" List
I'm supposed to be spending this time today thinking of ways to help a really, really innovative education supplier to reach and engage educators in a welcome and collaborative way.

After that I planned spend time trawling through school websites so I can provide a more complete argument for educators to take to policy makers regarding how and why their policies around social media have let our students down.

Instead of undertaking these tasks I'm going to be contemplating;

1) How on earth I am supposed to advise anyone on how to effectively reach and engage educators when the sector appears to be so anti-business?

2) Will the research that I'm doing going to be construed as creepy and weird as it involves curating and monitoring social media accounts?

Any and all comments and feedback about this post and, in particular these last two, questions would be extremely gratefully received.

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