How the Flat Classroom Project Almost Died Yesterday!

Besides the obvious influence over the minds of tomorrow, teachers have more influence now than in the history of mankind.

Yesterday is just a case in point.

Meet the Student Lounge for Flat Classroom

Our Flat Classroom Project Ning is where we connect. We wanted to move the conversations out of the student's personal e-mail accounts (where they cannot be monitored and advised) into a public area.

Ning is perfect, because it e-mails the student when messages are left on their page or discussions. It also gives us an RSS feed and a great environment in which to work and monitor things.

(When you do a cross cultural project, you are guaranteed to have cross cultural misunderstanding. You must watch for it and mentor it.)

We love the Ning for that.

Meet Google Adsense

So, when our free site which is supported by Google Adsense, used its keyword matcher and our students started talking about “social lives in social networking” and the changing aspects of life in a globally connected world, the words “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “dating,” “love,” and “hate” and all such connected words were spidered, and the fact that some students are from Qatar, we started seeing ads like this come up:

Needless to say, it was a deal breaker!

This one ad was enough to derail everything we had worked for...

hundreds of hours.

And lifetimes of progress.

We have students connecting who have rarely worked together before… US public and private schools, Australia, Austria, China, Qatar…and even more religious persuasians and ethic backgrounds. (We're not really a melting pot but more like a stew!!!)

And we need to go further and pull in schools in Africa, South America and beyond.

We're now discussing how we bring students in when they don't have access to technology….

but it all almost evaporated.

It was all almost gone.

(Note to educators with blogs: this is precisely why I have never Google Adsensed my blog. Like most teachers, I'm perpetually short of cash most of the time however, if I believe in what I do, how can I sacrifice my reputation and who I am b/c an add went up on my page that I am against? “A good name is to be desired above great riches.” I have that beside my bed, it is what I look at first thing in the morning. How can I leave that behind?)

Death of a Dream

See, companies like Wikispaces, “get” education. They understand that advertising inappropriate things on a school website (eg. you're teaching how to do essays and an ad pops up trying to get students to buy an essay online or worse, it starts soliciting for porn) are enough excuse for those who are against these new technologies to kill the Web 2.0 Baby.

Companies who understand education know that the students will be creating their own spaces now or later and that they will benefit. We either need ad free spaces to use for schools or those that are G rated ads. (Ideally, ad free.)

Oh, the walled garden people are going to say,

“Yes! Walled Garden! Walled Garden!”

I say to them,

“Raise a bubble boy for 18 years and take him to the mall… he won't live a week!”

Bubbles aren't the answer and neither are walls. By the time they are in high school, they should be operating in spaces that are public as well as private areas and should know and understand the difference and that privacy anywhere on the Internet is an illusion.

Bionic Problem solving

Bionic – “a living creature that is enhanced by electronic or electromechanical devices.”

So, Julie saw it, twittered it, and contacted me and also our friend Steve Hargadon who has been a great advocate for educational uses of Ning (and has been consulting with them for a while.)

Although the $19.95 seems like a pittance, who would fund this site into perpetuity? And when whoever paid pulled the plug, then what would be lost? Amazing discussions and resources that we all need to access!

So, after twittering, e-mailing, Im'ing and several various forms of communication, Ning's Gina Bianchini and Athena Von Oech got involved.

This was huge…to us anyway.

To have this Web 2.0-enabled Flat Classroom baby killed in infancy was more than any of us could stand.

There was a moment when we sat on the brink and I wondered, will Ning respond? Will they show themselves to be a business that understands these things or will they take the hard line? (Which as a business woman who has been in the corporate world, I can certainly understand.) Am I going to have to pay for this myself every month forever?

I won't go over the content of our discussions but let's say we had a passionate talk about what educators need… and with Steve's advocacy, the following announcement came out today:

Free Ad-Free Social Networks on Nings for Educators

Steve posted on his blog:

“Yesterday, in a flurry of email exchanges, Ning's Gina Bianchini and Athena Von Oech, Flat Classroom superstars Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay, and I worked out the details of a trial program to remove the ad component from any existing or newly-created K-12 student-centered networks. If we can show them ad-free networks are something educators really want (that won't be hard!), they will continue the program and create a more automated, stream-lined process–but in the meantime, here is what you can do:

  1. Create your student network, if you don't already have one
  2. Go to
  3. Use the subject line: “Ad Removal Request for K-12 Education Site”
  4. Put in your network ID at the beginning of the “Describe your issue” box, then just give a one-sentence description of your network usage. For example, you could put:
    “ – a global collaborative project founded by Vicki Davis (Westwood Schools, USA) and Julie Lindsay (Qatar Academy, Qatar) in 2006 to use Web 2.0 tools to facilitate communication, interaction and collaboration between students and teachers from all participating classrooms.”
  5. Email me at if your network isn't ad-free within 24 hours (except on weekends!). We're not sure what the demand, and therefore the turn-around time, will be, but if your ads aren't gone in 24 hours, I'll check on it for you.
  6. Join the Ning in Education community to get help, hint, and tips for using Ning in educational settings
  7. Consider thanking Ning by placing a Ning in Education badge on your frontpage by following the link on the right side of that network that says “Get a Ning in Education Badge!” You can then add the HTML code into a text box on your network.”

This is great! It was great to see that this was so much more than just our project. It is the project of all educators.

Risk Taking and Education

Many wonder why we'd want to use social networks in class anyway.

“Tisk Tisk, they aren't walled. They're not truly safe. How dare you?”

And yet, look what has evolved? It is because educators are using these sites and want to use them. Yes, it was a risk to use Ning with the ads, but honestly, I've never seen an inappropriate ad come up on Ning before and just ignored them as an annoyance that perhaps would generate the funds for Ning to give me free server space.

Now that I see how little control one has over Google adsense, I will always advocate ad free sites.

Bionic Communications

We saw it in the speedy recall of the Halo 3 special edition for Xbox. The cases were scratching the disks and Microsoft listened to the bloggers. We see it today with Ning listening to the need of educators.

Bionic Companies

The companies that succeed in this environment of networked power users are those who listen to the network. Those who keep their ear to the rails and understand that the rails may be in twitter, blogs, wikis, webcasts, backchannels, anywhere.

I am not one of those who perceives business as “dirty” or “bad.” We need business. I think business is great, when done right.

However, businesses need to understand the education segment and that the education segment bleeds over into everything else. We are charged with educating the thoughts and minds of tomorrow. Thoughts and minds with increasing money to spend and increasing voice in the blogosphere and websphere.

And the simple typing in of the URL is advertising to this segment.

Advocate Ad-Free for Education

So, I'm asking you, as we join ustream, as we join mogulus, and all of these cool sites, let's advocate for education.

Let's try them and use them, an then speak out for what educators need:

  • Ad free classroom websites
  • Rating systems for streaming TV (let people self rate, most will)
  • Rating systems for blogs (I'll rate mine G, others rate them R for language, etc.)

We need to evolve Filter 2.0 and it may take a little intelligence behind it, like all of us contributing. (Here we are envisioning Web 3.0 and our filters are still in 1.0!!) Even the Web 2.0 advocate with a podcast like Diggnation will oblige, after all, they mark themselves as Explicit on iTunes.

Why can't we rate blogs, etc.?

Why we can't get Web 2.0 into School 1.0?

It is about content, people. Content.

If companies and businesses cannot have guaranteed G-rated or TG-rated (teacher guided) content flowing into their schools, most schools do not have the vision to make it happen. Most just won't take the risk in this toxic, risk averse environment called education.

It is imperative we make this happen. Imperative.

Let me ask, how will your students compete with mine who have collaborated globally in multiple projects before they are even a junior in high school. How will they compete with the students in Qatar, China, Australia….

But I am a win win person, it is more important to me that we can ALL compete and communicate effectively. Because then we can overcome the hurdles and create true win win scenarios rather than win-lose scenarios built on short term thinking and cultural misunderstandings.

Businesses need to stop griping about educators not taking a risk on their product and take the risk themselves, by making ad free sites available for educators. Doing something new is enough risk for most teachers.

Let's grow this Web 2.0 education baby up!

And let's move past our trite self containing word “Web 2.0” and advocate what we really need:

Global literacy and global connectedness that bridges digital divides, cultural divides, and occupational divides. Let's change things by connecting our kids. Let's change things by connecting ourselves. Let's be a bionic, computer enabled people who can jump across the world and back at the speed of light.

Let's overcome and move forward.

No Whining! Productive Criticism!

Don't just whine and complain about things you don't like! Speak out in meaningful, well thought out ways about what you'd like to see happen. This is not the first time this has happened…. other companies like VoiceThread, Elluminate, TechSmith, Evoca, Airset, Crick, CDW-G, and Wikispaces (just off the top of my head.)

All of these are companies who I know of who have listened actively to educators. No company is perfect but if you want to make money in education, you should listen to the educators who buy your services.

Speak up. Speak out. More power to teachers.

Teach students to speak up. More power to students! (For good teachers should not be afraid of empowered students)

It is all about Web 2.0 and yet it is not even about Web 2.0. It is about moving education forward into the real world, safely, wisely, and effectively.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Suzie Vesper November 1, 2007 - 9:40 pm

I think that everything you say here is so true! The idea of Filter 2.0 where we put ratings on different sites is a powerful one meaning we can still use these wonderful tools but with an acceptable level of risk (because no system will be perfect). In New Zealand, schools can choose themselves which tools can be made widely available on their networks by contacting the filtering companies but many sites like YouTube are still blocked because of the ‘mixed bag’ content available on them. We are losing so much of the good with the bad! If more sites begin to cater for educational needs then this wouldn’t need to happen.
I have also resisted putting ads on my sites as I don’t want to lose the control over the content on my own pages. Keep up the great work as an advocate for educationalists.

profv November 1, 2007 - 11:12 pm

I think though that this is an example of the fears of those that are new to the Web 2.0. You had the contacts to address this situation. However, those who are new to the situation 1) may not know they have control over this software, 2) have enough trouble trying to figure out the attributes of the software, and 3) may not have control over the use at the local level, where administrators might pull the plug the first time in appropriate use happens. This scares teachers who have a lot of other things to worry about (getting students to reach the standards, finding resources, being aware of the social pressures within and outside of class).

I noticed you mentioned g-rated often. I don’t know why companies have not come out with a rating system which you could choose. This would target the advertising (good business practice) and make sure the content is appropriate thus minimize calls for regulating internet ads (they have different TV advertising laws for children).

Finally, I was disappointed that the company limited the restrictions to k-12. While I understand the age (advertising to minors) is a problem, the fact is that at the university level we also must follow certain guidelines and standards. I can’t require my students to go to a site that may expose them to images and ads that are offensive to them. The key here is requiring students. My students outside of class have the opportunity to avoid those sites and images that are offensive, but if I require them to visit the site as a requirement for their grade, I take that choice away from them. This is why our university has software (i.e. blogging and wikis) that are password protected and gives the teachers control to filter out offensive content (unless they prepare students and give them the option not to visit those sites).

The dilemma I am faced with as I plan a course on the Web 2.0 for undergraduate business students is how much to control the content. I have had students offended in the past with other content (i.e. when teaching about visuals–having a particularly graphic photo) and realized that I need to give my students the option to opt out. Last semester, one of my students took exception with the free wiki software we were using as it asked for personal information she was not comfortable giving out. I felt she had a valid concern and I had to find an alternative wiki for her.

John Pederson November 2, 2007 - 1:56 am

Dear Ning.


Never before had I thought “Hmmm, Ning has Google Ads.”

Now I know “Hmm, Ning is Google Ad free for education.”

Good on ya!

Downes November 2, 2007 - 12:03 pm

I have two (not entirely consistent) views on this matter.

First, I agree that learning should be advertising free. Not to protect students from specific distasteful ads, but to avoid the merging of advertising and educational content in general, as this impairs a students’ ability to evaluate advertising appropriately.

But second, I am opposed to specific ‘education only’ types of regimes, where specific conditions (free use, ad free, etc) are allowed for “education”. This is because what is commonly understood as “education” is, in fact, educational *institutions*, and not, say, self-directed or informal learning. At the higher levels especially, this amounts to support for types of learning that require that students pay large tuition fees, while doing nothing for the student who cannot afford such fees.

According, while I believe you took the fright action for mostly the rght reasons, it will not be a long-term sustainable solution, and should be viewed as a stop-gap.

Heather Ross November 2, 2007 - 6:21 pm

I’m with profv on this. I work for a college and I’m trying to introduce the use of Ning, but some of our students are under 18. I wish that the good folks at Ning would at least consider offering this to post-secondary instructors and learners.

SeanN. July 3, 2008 - 12:45 pm
Cathy Williams September 30, 2010 - 8:31 am

I believe all social networks should be made as useful and safe as the idea of Filter 2.0. In this regard the efforts of New Zea land are appreciative where the content can be filtered according to the need and desire.
Ads are a good way to generate revenue through Google Adsense and I don’t feel like it is harmful for your website content.
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