In a community, rights of freedom of expression usually beat out privacy.  No-one in this village would be happy if members of the community were constrained from expressing their views on the qualities of the village shop or pub (and both are excellent, I hasten to add: go to and check them out).  But something odd happens on the Web, or at least to politicians and regulators when they forget that the network is an expression of community as well as a means of communication.  I believe that one day current high walls around personal data in the web will be lowered, that individuals will treat their identity as a tradeable commodity and extract what benefits they can from trading it, and much of the fear of the unknown which is implied in Europe especially by the great business of Data Protection will be jettisoned.

Within Europe, no country has organized the defence of personal data with more efficientcy than Germany. Yet it is there at the moment that we see a glimmer of light.  This month’s issue of SCL, the journal of the Society for Computers and Law contains a fascinating account by Andreas Ruhmkon of the case against the German ratings website  This site – in English “copy or crib from me ” – rates German schools and their teachers.  Users are registered, and can score the teachers in their schools on a scale of 1 to 6 (where one is high) across a range of criteria.  These include “cool and funny”, “popular”, “motivated”, “good teaching” and “fair marks”.  Students can only complete this evaluation for the schools for which they have registered, responses that include only top and bottom scores are omitted to avoid abuses, and students can include quotations from the teacher concerned to illustrate their scores.  The system has become very popular in Germany, and has been copied elsewhere.

Inevitably, a German teacher sought an injunction to remove her data.  She felt that categories like cool and funny, human and popular infringed her privacy, while her quotations were her own property, and the site could not designate her name, age, sex, qualifications or subject expertise without her permission, despite this information being available on the school web site. (She was, by the way, rated by her pupils as a 4.3)

While she was initially given an injunction by a district court, the case finally went to the Federal Court of Justice on appeal.  Here she lost the case, on the very fascinating grounds that freedom of expression outweighed the individual’s rights to privacy, given that here the question of privacy was decided in the social sphere, the teacher’s professional capacity, and not in regard to her personal life.  While it seems to me that social and private sometimes co-mingle in ways that are less easy to sort out than this one, we should all welcome the German court decision as a sensible blow for freedom.  And while doing so it is worth noting that European Human Rights legislation, mirrored in the German Constitution, generally overrides data protection legislation like the German BDSG.  The exception appears, once again, to be France: the service was ordered to remove the names of teachers because the service, according to Mr. Ruhmkon, would “endanger the functioning of the (French) educational system”.

In the UK, sites like and are already active.  Mr Ruhmkon reports libel actions against (physicians ratings) and has reportedly been closed by such threats.  And yet the German example does offer the hope that the existing social framework of freedom of expression will, in virtual as well as real society, rightly overcome unnecessary privacy rights claimed in the network which do not exist in the real world.

This week I went along to the BETT show at London’s Olympia.  Unlike CES in Las Vegas, I was on my aching feet for seven hours, and only the sensible suggestion of one brilliant assessment software developer ( “Fancy a pint of Brakspears at the Hand and Flowers on the other side of the road?”) sustained my analytical efforts throughout the day.  And this great trade show for British educational technology fully repays analysis.  The show is 26 years old, has 750 exhibitors, covers the best part of 14000 square metres, and will by the time it ends on Saturday have entertained some 30,000 teachers as it did me.  It is still growing, with Google, YouTube and LG joining for the first time this year.  Panasonic, Intel, Microsoft, Dell and NCC were amongst those launching new products at the fair.  In the related conference, the UK government, part sponsor of BETT, welcomed 72 ministers of education speaking for the interests of over a billion students.  The UK Prime Minister announced the Home Access scheme at this meeting, in order to fund laptops in needy families to support access to a digital revolution following successful trials in Oldham and Suffolk  …. Hosannas, let choirs sing, glory to politicians and educational administrators in the highest  ….

My apologies for breaking off into Carol Form (seasonal hangover), but attending the opening press conference at conferences like this brings out the worst in me.  EMAP, the organizer, does a great job (but the show does need a real all-year web presence).  BESA, the UK trade body, likewise.  But, really, when is this 26 year old revolution going to change anything?

So, at the press conference moment for open questions, I asked Professor Steven Heppel, apostle of new learning, when the red hot heat generated at BETT was going to thaw the cold and indifferent heart of average British teaching, and was delighted when he agreed that for 70% of British teachers what IT in schools accomplished was putting a modernist gloss on teaching approaches that had not fundamentally changed since the nineteenth century.  For the rest, for the centres of excellence, for the teachers as leaders, something different was happening.  He spoke of the post-appropriation model – a place where learners are finally in control, where engagement was largely (in the widest sense) play-based.  He thought that Home Access was important because half the nation’s children are brought up by their grandparents while parents are out at work, because you were more likely to learn on Facebook than from an eTextbook, that the network (as in extended family) was the learning place, and (my words) the classroom had to compete in the network for learning space.

If you walk round BETT with your head afire with the idea that kids don’t learn from teachers  but from play, from other pupils, and from the range of formal and informal material available on the web, it quickly becomes easy to categorize what is on show.  Most products and services are for sale to teachers and schools.  They buy them because they persuade parents, governors, regulators, inspectors  and their ilk that standards are rising, modernity is being treated with respect and that newly graduated teachers can be safely employed at schools which have VLEs, LMS, blended learning packages , online and self-marking continuous assessment, a digital whiteboard on every flat surface  and a networked school timetable that emailed and texted every parent with an update for each inch of falling snow.

But if the Professor is right, and he has my bet (pun intended), then the real revolution is yet to come.  It follows from learners being tracked in the network and their learning journeys and exploratory pathways being recorded and imitated by their peers.  Like apprentices in a Victorian factory, we will learn from each other how to survive and how to use learning for self-advancement and competitive benefit.  And our best teachers will guide and influence these processes. Once we learn how to learn it will be a lifelong practise.  And the rest of our teachers, those who teach by rote in the eTextbook?  They will go the same way as the Librarians…

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