Some things I learned from a land down-under (followed by a tangent…)

I’ve been following dannah boyd’s blog lately, and she recently discussed her role as a keynote speaker at one of the series of seminars put on by an outfit in Australia called education.au. Boyd was talking about MySpace (what else?), and there are podcast recordings of her talk there. Good stuff to think about with teaching later.

But perhaps more interesting to me in terms of teaching is the stuff that Jimmy Wales was talking about (this is where the tangent comes in). He was also a keynote speaker, and, among many other things I’m sure (I just listened to about 10 minutes of this), he talked about Wikia. As far as I can tell, Wikia is a free wiki service that works with the same software as Wikipedia and which is free because it runs ads in the right-hand column.

This seems to present a classic dilemma, maybe one that in and of itself ought to be a topic in teaching with computers and educational computing in general. On the one hand, there are a bunch of commercial services out there that provide a bunch of utilities and help for free that are perfectly useful in teaching with technology at all levels. Blogger, Wikia, pbwiki, wordpress.com, flickr, etc., etc., etc., the list is so long and so obvious to most that I am sure I don’t need to go any further than this. These services are reliable, robust, upgraded, and –oh, did I mention this?– free.

But there are two other hands here to this three armed monster. Other hand #1: the content generated by teachers and students are hosted and ultimately controlled elsewhere by these enterprises. Besides all the stuff about copyright and ownership and all of that, if one of these companies goes out of business or off line for some reason, all of your work is going to be gone. OH #2: It is generally considered unseemly and uncool to have ads on sites/tools being used for educational purposes.

This has been on my mind a lot lately because of the email situation at EMU. Feel free to go to EMUTalk.org to see the whole story, but basically, EMU’s email system crashed hard and was off-line for six days. I’m not going to sum up all of the frustration and anger going on over there because of all of this, but there was a lot. A LOT. EMU’s, um, “profile” in the national news has been a little bit higher than I would prefer as of late, and the only event that has happened in the last 12 months that has brought more traffic to EMUtalk.org is the firing of EMU President John Fallon, and he was fired largely because of the cover-up of a murder on campus.

Now, for me personally, the impact of this was severe, but not nearly as bad as it could have been because I switched to using gmail for as much of my email as possible in January. Even with the EMU email failure, I was receiving messages from outside of EMU at my gmail account– apparently, they get forwarded before they get to my EMU inbox. And it was a good thing too since I had a variety of work-oriented email messages from folks outside of EMU– potential students, for example.

A lot of the debate on EMUtalk.org has been about the role of services like Gmail. The opposition to Gmail services has been (basically) that using Gmail gives Google way WAY too much data for them to use on/against you, it’s never good to trust an outside source for your sensitive data because of all of the scary terms of service agreements with these folks, and because of what I guess I can only describe as self-defensive pride. While a lot of my local ICT people express concerns about Google’s suite of services because of privacy, I suspect what they’re really saying is they do not like the idea that the university could “outsource” these services and get a better product.

In any event, the pros and cons of these free services that run little ads are complicated for sure. I guess I make decisions about these things on a case-by-case basis. I run my own blogs on server space I lease with the open source product WordPress, but I have my students use Blogger simply because it’s easy, reliable, and I don’t want to deal with the support issues. But because Gmail has so many services that I can’t get from EMU for my email, I am willing to put up with some very small and often amusing ads. Maybe the same will be true with Wikia as well.

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