Dot.Con: s-Commerce  e-Commerce
by Ferdi Serim, Editor, MultiMedia Schools

It isn’t news that it’s dry in New Mexico, but this past summer’s fires have seared images of the consequences of sustained drought into the national consciousness. For those of us who’ve worked in schools, neither is it news that far too many classrooms suffer from financial drought conditions. For nearly 500 years, people living in New Mexico have witnessed a remarkable phenomenon, where massive clouds build to towering heights, thunder begins to roar, and rain begins to fall in thick gray sheets, only to evaporate a thousand feet or more above the ground. This strange phenomenon happens so reliably out here that the Spanish gave it a name, Virga, and it is part of this land’s enchantment.

Perhaps I just don’t get it, but the recent rush to “portalize” education on the Internet reminds me of Virga. The multi-million-dollar deals swirl overhead, with massive amounts of venture capital condensing into companies that swallow other companies and scoop up the pioneering educators who first staked out territory in this new landscape for learning. Dazzled by dollars, the human wave becomes a tsunami, as each new venture seeks to become (often self-proclaimed) the Education Portal. I watch, here on the ground, as my peers struggle with inadequate resources, insufficient support, and little change in the conditions under which they live out their professional lives. Given just a little water, the desert will bloom, but I see far too little of this e-Commerce activity reaching the ground. One can even see rainbows in Virga, but the pot of gold remains elusive to educators.

Today, both students and teachers must see themselves as learners. As learners, they need to interact with the highest-quality materials in order to develop the skills required to transform data into information into knowledge and hopefully wisdom. Balancing the legitimate needs of content providers and knowledge builders is a far more complex task, since the advent of today’s communications and multimedia technologies. The key to knowing who’s really on your side depends largely on where they are coming from. As Dr. Lauren Resnick, director, University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center, has noted, “Every tool embodies its underlying concepts,” and Web sites are no exception! One indication is you will be able to find cogent, first-person accounts of how our peers have used the economies of scale, purchasing power and concentrated talent (that the paradigm portals model), in order to improve learning to their students. Those who can only tell stories of their latest acquisition are missing a great opportunity to build relationships with those of us who work with kids every day [see the October MMS “Direct Connect” and the reference to http://www.cluetrain.org].

Growth or Development?
William F. Roth, in his article “Helping Academia Realize Its Potential” (Technos, Vol. 9 No.2, Summer 2000) shows how the shift from the “growth ethic” to the “development ethic” underlies the current conflict in values. He says the growth ethic “is a product of our love affair with the scientific method, which has been the well-spring of our tremendous economic and technological advancement. Because growth, by definition, is based on the ongoing desire to get bigger, the ongoing quest to gain ‘more’ of things that are physically measurable, it encourages a ‘scarcity mentality’ (I can never get enough) and, therefore creates a competitive environment.” I’m sure the backers of dot.coms find no argument in this philosophy!

Roth continues, “The oncoming development ethic…incorporates the growth ethic into something much richer. It believes that our major objective is not simply to grow in numbers, but to realize and enjoy our positive human potential to the fullest extent …and that while the scientific method remains important to our advancement, incorporating human values into the equation as well as numbers is equally important.” Writing a business plan around such goals is much more complicated!

My friend and colleague Kathie Felix helped me understand this discrepancy: She coined the term “s-commerce” to distinguish the brand of mathematics that operates in schools from that which apparently drives e-commerce calculations. After all, $6 billion spent annually on educational technology wasn’t enough to spark interest. It was the realization that education’s overall $360 billion annual purchases represented the last “unclaimed territory” for business-to-business (B2B) vending that got the current frenzy rolling.

It’s possible that the only people making real money from the present system of education are involved in the prison industry. Lynell Burmark, an associate of the David Thornburg Center for Professional Development, recently learned from a planner at the California Corrections Department that they sought a reliable indicator to predict the capacity required to house prisoners 10 years from now. After trying a myriad of measures, they settled on the most reliable predictor they found: fourth-grade reading level. If you can’t read by the fourth grade in California, they’re already building your cell.

This is just the beginning of the drastic differences in the s-commerce and e-commerce world. Here are a few others.

What’s Your Exit Strategy?
No VC (venture capitalist) worth his/her stock options goes into an enterprise without first figuring out the final scene: will it be a buyout by a larger corporation? Cashing in on merger stock?

There is no exit strategy for public education, the clamor for vouchers, charter schools, and home schooling not-withstanding. Whether schools lose money or not, until we repeal the idea of free and compulsory education, the dot.com economic model won’t work in this domain.

What’s Your School’s IPO?
The money to be made is in the Initial Public Offering of previously privately held stock. Paper fortunes become real when your dot.com hits Wall Street (neither a product nor profit to show has been necessary until relatively recently!). Here’s a conundrum: Is the school version of an IPO what the public offers in terms of financial support, or is it the value the public puts on the school’s output, in terms of student performance? Either way, as a societal system, we’re in deep trouble.

Your Call Is Important to Us…
Isn’t it heartwarming that so many corporations are willing to invest so many dollars into Education Portals just to make your job easier? Where’s the catch? Here’s the deal:

E-commerce communities don’t want a relationship with you—they want a relationship with your data. Even if you’re a student. Even if you’re a teacher. Particularly if you’re a parent.

This is nothing new. Every time you buy any item with a credit card using an 800 number, every time you use a supermarket discount shopper’s card, detailed information is being collected about you, your purchasing habits, and matched with your demographics, down to the neighborhood level. This has been going on since the 1960s. The Internet makes possible a level of data gathering unimaginable before: Every computer tells a story about its user, and where it’s been. Since 50 percent of the price of anything you ever buy consists of the marketing/packaging of that product, it’s clear to see that schools are sitting on a click-through gold mine (at least it’s clear to marketers!).

Getting the Rain to Reach the Ground
We who fervently support the integration of technology into learning do so as a lever to improve the total education system. While not all people who favor such education improvements/renewal/reform agree about the nature or role of technology in education, most agree on this: The goal is to improve education, not to increase the amount of technology in schools. The appropriate use of technology within such reform efforts has a catalyzing effect, allowing for significant change in the goals and processes of education toward more student-centered, authentic problem-solving approaches to learning, and on a wide scale. This is precisely where our development ethic clashes with the growth ethic of some dot.coms. But not all of them!

As you make your choices, based on your needs, talk to other users, and to the people with education experience inside these companies. A growth-oriented portal won’t have time for this; a development-based company wouldn’t dream of not providing you with ways to collaborate and communicate with all facets of its online community. In this issue, Della Curtis shows how powerful partnerships with responsive vendors can be (it allowed her to raise $10 million for her libraries!) and Yvonne Andres, an Internet pioneer in her own right, provides guidance for you to build your own criteria for evaluating portals. There is nothing inherently evil about dot.coms, or about money, or about rain, for that matter. The benefits of each must simply be channeled to put the resources where they will do the most good, and we can help guarantee this result through our participation.

Roth closes by saying, “At this point, therefore, the major obstacle to the desired change is no longer ‘out there.’ Rather it is in ourselves, in the way we think, and in the way we have organized our educational system. These are the challenges that can be dealt with, as soon as we decide to do so.” To which I add, and don’t be dot.conned!

Communications to the author may be addressed to: Ferdi Serim, MultiMedia Schools, 11 Palacio Road, Santa Fe, NM 87505; 505/466-1901; fax: 505/466-1901; ferdi@infotoday.com.

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