The Charities Commission think blogs have no educational value

June 13th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, media | 19 Comments »

Rant. Podnosh has unearthed a true gem: in a document called Public Benefit and the Advancement of Education, the Charities Commission are puzzling over whether educational institutions like posh schools can count as charities.

There are two main aspects to educative merit or value:
• is the subject capable of being of educative value; and
• is the process such that it delivers educative value?

I don’t care which way they jump on schools, but I’m very interested in the examples they use to illustrate their point. There’s a bit of chat about educational websites (yeah, they’re always riveting) before this charmer:

An individual’s blog, on the other hand, is not likely to be of educative value, as neither the subject matter nor the process is of educational value.

This is regrettably crass.

Bloggers often do things better than anyone else. In the Dore story we saw how a collection of bloggers were more capable of critically appraising and explaining the published academic evidence on a miracle cure for dyslexia than the entire British news media, and even better at offering practical advice. While the media pour praise over the work of vitamin pill salesman Patrick Holford, only bloggers have troubled themselves with an assessment of the evidence for his claims. In the comedy corner of homeopathy alone we have recently seen an online journal club that helped produce a critical commentary which was actually published in an academic journal, not to mention proper physicists pulling apart handwavey quantum claims and experiments designed to give false positives. The people at sciencebasedmedicine are constantly walking us through epidemiology, evidence based medicine, and applying these tools to everyday issues.

That’s just one tiny atom of the internet. The Make blog has more stimulating art, tech and engineering content than almost any school classroom; waxy.org and boingboing will fill your head with interesting ideas about how to deal with the changing nature of knowledge and copyright under the cover of geek funnies; Mindhacks is more interesting and informative than almost any educational resource I can think of; and Oliver Kamm, although I disagree with him on many things, will teach you how to call someone an arse using only posh words.

Without even thinking about what effect it might have on the people who read it, I can say for certain that writing here has had a huge impact on the way I work and think: it has made me more rigorous and more transparent in my reasoning, because I can get away with nothing; it has made me think about the importance of finding and linking to primary references, attributing ideas, sharing workloads, and collaborating. It’s also reinforced for me the value of open access publication, as I’ve seen more and more people from outside of academia who wanted to read academic papers, simply for their own interest and edification.

In science, the mainstream media has completely failed, dumbing everything down to the point where it would be comprehensible to a mass market which was never very interested, and neglecting the intelligent and informed. Schools don’t seem to do much better. Failing to stimulate society’s geeks has massive economic and cultural consequences: blogs – or should I say “people” – have stepped into that breech, doing it with no interest in money whatsoever, and if you’re too thick to spot that, then you’re too thick to make decisions about what counts as charitable.

More:

Amusing titbit from Scott Walter.

Sharmila Nebhrajani is one of the commissioners of the Charity Commission. Sharmila is also COO of BBC Future Media & Technology, and this is where I get confused. The commission has a member who runs the BBC department that handles its digital content, website, and (I would assume) blogs and podcasts. The commission doesn’t see blogs as educational, yet the BBC continues to support Sharmila’s department in spite of a £36 million overspend.


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19 Responses



  1. used to be jdc said,

    June 13, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    I liked podnosh’s point that, although the report complained that in blogs and wikis “the content is superficial and this information is not verified in any way”:

    the report itself appears to be superficial and [he] can’t see that the information is verified in any way.

    Also, I thought this was good on the lack of opportunity to provide feedback on the report: “It would of course be much better on the web not as a clunky pdf but as a wiki or maybe even a blog with a series of pages so we can comment on different aspect of the consultation – and then everyone can learn from it”

  2. wilsontown said,

    June 13, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    “the content is superficial”

    Obviously depends on the blog.

    “and this information is not verified in any way”

    Again that depends on the blog. Bad Science, for example, always tries to link to original sources. That allows you to verify things for yourself, which has surely got to be an educative experience?

    Cheers for the shout out to Hawk/Handsaw, by the way, but I should point out that, unlike shpalman, I’m by no means a “proper physicist”. A “proper geologist”, perhaps.

  3. brainduck said,

    June 13, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    ‘the content is superficial and this information is not verified in any way’!?!
    My first ever blog post was a line-by-line ramble through a 30-page ‘study’, with references to proper published research all over the place. It’s got sources you can look up faster than a dead-tree textbook.
    Part of education is learning how to evaluate sources. If someone doesn’t agree with me, they can say so on my blog & I’ll try & answer it, & they can find more sources & draw them to my attention. What more do they want?

    Writing a blog has been very educational for me as an undergrad. I’ve learnt a lot about how to communicate the stuff I’m learning about to the public, which will be very useful if I ever get as far as being let loose on patients. Transferable skills by the bucket-load, and I even used it in a recent job application ‘cos they wanted someone who could do ‘written communication’.

    Just as well I don’t actually need funding as a charity, then…

  4. A Geek Tragedy said,

    June 13, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    I’m pretty sure it was on a blog that I learnt the correct word for this: “fucktarded”.

    Strictly speaking they say “an individuals blog” so I guess group blogs like boingboing and Language Log shouldn’t be used as examples but there are still a zillion obvious counter-examples. Dr. Ben, P.Z: Myers, Terry Tao (he has his whole series of Graduate level lectures up FFS), the whole “Blogging on peer reviewed research” movement…

    Grr…

  5. Squander Two said,

    June 13, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    To be fair, the report specifically says “an individual’s blog”, while a lot of the examples Ben gives are group blogs. But a lot of them aren’t, as well, so Ben’s still right.

  6. Squander Two said,

    June 13, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Oo, synchronicity.

  7. Nick Booth said,

    June 13, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    Ben, thanks very much for mentioning this post. It’s received loads of comments by people who routinely experience blogs as a very powerful personal learning tool. (I fall firmly into that category)

    My frustration is the apparent confusion between the medium and the message.

    Blogs are simply a tool for conveying information – the education quality and value of that information is as variable as the educational quality and value of any television, radio or book.

    At its simpest digital media literacy is such a curious and new phenomenon that there are many people who are simply illiterate when it comes to digital/social media.

    If someone does not take time to use or at the very least appreciate this new form of literacy they are in no position to judge its validity. It’s the equivalent of asking someone who can’t read to tell us how good a book is.

  8. woodbine said,

    June 13, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    It seems like their entire understanding of blogging came from a Daily Mail article on anonymous blogs written by policemen and civil servants.

    Of course diarising on the internet isn’t a worthwhile endeavour, so thank god they’ve got the Samuel Pepys Trust to advance education on their behalf.

  9. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 15, 2008 at 3:22 am

    What is a blog but a frequently updated website organised in a particular way? If it is merely a diary, however, strictly a log of what’s going on in your personal world rather than a channel for material of independent value, or for a set of lesson plans, I agree that it does not constitute an education. Miss Blenkinsop will just have to come into class and teach geography the old way, after all. Where did she post from last anyway? Montevideo? And she’s with the bursar? Oh dear. I fear we may have vacancies…

  10. chinaphil said,

    June 15, 2008 at 3:48 am

    Must. Learn. By. Committee. Must. Not. Consider. Alternatives.

    Because children are too young, aren’t they? It would be unfair to expose them to frightening possibilities like the fact that their teacher (or the nice man from the government) might be wrong. They might become confused and develop antisocial tendencies like questioning authority. Fortunately, we have drugs for that now.

  11. Mhairi said,

    June 16, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    The Charity Commission are in the process of reassessing their definitions on public benefit etc. and are apparently interested in hearing people’s comments. You’d hope they’d be particularly interested to get input in relation to new media, innit.
    As for the educational value of blogs, they should be read critically, like any other source, and this contextualising of voice is something I believe is seriously lacking in the education system at the moment.

    Children are now ‘cut and pasting’ essays while having no clue who wrote what they’re copying or why.

    It is quite often much easier to find out about the author of a blog than to discover who funded the publication of a particular article or commissioned a TV show. For example Ben quite plainly reveals his educational and work history on this site, which gives you a pretty good idea where he’s coming from his own perspective and with a quick google you can also find out what else he’s written and what other people think of him.

    In light of this perhaps blogs should be used, not only to find out (possibly quite) interesting or important things, but also as ground to teach da yoof how to contextualise and critique proper like.

  12. j said,

    June 16, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    I would argue that the Charity Commission should critically assess the educational value (or otherwise) of both blogs and ‘bricks and mortar’ organisations, relatively independently of the medium/s used. Starting from the assumption that “[a]n individual’s blog is not likely to be of educative value” will not be helpful.

    Looking at the definitions used, I see no good reason why some blogs should not be educational: for example, Ben has gone into some detail in explaining statistics, evidence-based medicine etc, both on this blog and in public and mainstream media debates. On the other hand, I can think of a number of more ‘conventional’ charities which claim an ‘educational’ purpose while producing educational material which is so riddled with errors and fallacies as to be of little or no educational value.

    Of course, there are lots of terrible blogs and excellent ‘conventional’ educational charities. However, the Charity Commission should critically consider the roles played by all of these organisations when deciding on whether they are entitled to charitable status, instead of starting from a negative position re individual blogs at the same time as accepting a number of dubious ‘educational’ organisations as charities.

    This is all pretty academic for now: at least, I don’t know of any blogger who is considering claiming charitable status for an individual blog. However, I can see this becoming a more popular path to take in the future, and would have hoped that the Charity Commission could have taken a more constructive position on this issue.

  13. outeast said,

    June 17, 2008 at 9:19 am

    Jaw, meet floor. I’d say I’ve learnt more from blogs in the past three or four years than I learned in a similar number of years of formal study at university.

    I appreciate that this has a lot to do with my own motivation, interest, and so on. However, it is also a reflection of (a) the quality of some of the stuff out there and (b) the fact that when you are reading a blog the sources are usually linked and/or readily available (well, basically it’s a Google).

  14. jobsfordoctors said,

    June 18, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    I’m thinking of applying for my hours trawling this blog to be recognised as CME points (Continuing Medical Education for those non-medical folk).

    Perhaps this site should make it’s way into required reading for medical students…

  15. Dudley said,

    June 19, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    But it very precisely isn’t “is saying that charities cannot consider blogs in their work on ‘education’.”

    It is saying that running/hosting a blog cannot be considered as having “educational value” **sufficient to count as fulfilling the requirements for an organisation to be considered an educational charity**. In fact, it doesn’t even say that much: it specifically limits the comment to “an individual’s blog,” presuambly leaving it up to the organisation to argue that a group blog is of educational value.

  16. used to be jdc said,

    June 20, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    OK, this is a minor point but…

    it specifically limits the comment to “an individual’s blog,”

    Individual blogs can be incredibly educational. I learnt pretty much everything I know about homeopathy and physics from shpalman’s blog What the hell is this? and almost everything I know about the philosophy of science comes from (or via) AP Gaylard’s blog I canna’ change the laws of physics. I see no reason to privilege group blogs over individual blogs.

  17. used to be jdc said,

    June 20, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks for your response jobsfordoctors. You’ve raised some interesting points. I agree that “it is perhaps a dangerous thing to learn all you know from a single source – you will inevitably (without very careful evaluation) pick up any bias from that single source”.

    When I wrote that I had learnt pretty much everything I know about subject x from blog y, I failed to point out that one of the reasons these blogs were so educative is that they link to reliable sources and resources and include references. I feel a bit stupid for not pointing that out, so to try and make up for that mistake here’s some examples: shpalman.livejournal.com/10440.html has explanatory links throughout the text and relevant references appear at the end of the post. Gaylard’s main page – apgaylard.wordpress.com/ – has links to resources such as NIH, Cochrane and Bandolier under that EBM banner and links to resources like the Encyclopædia Britannica (this post: apgaylard.wordpress.com/2008/04/05/seduced-by-water/).

    “Blogging is an odd situation where people can say what they like and control what is written the messageboards.”
    So true. Have you ever visited Dr Briffa’s blog? Or Nadine Dorries’s? Prime examples.

    “On this basis, group blogs _may_ provide generally better quality than lone bloggers (auto-peer review), and bloggers who allow free comment (they have their respondants to answer to) would inevitably try harder to write better quality material (and probably have a higher degree of probity?)”
    The point that group blogs may provide generally better quality due to peer-review is a fair one. On the other hand, peer-review is certainly no guarantee of quality – JACM and Homeopathy are both peer-reviewed journals. I suppose it depends who your peers are.
    Re bloggers who allow free comment trying to write better quality material and perhaps having a higher degree of probity – I may be biased but I would like to say I agree with this point.

    “I just don’t think enough people have the skill-set to critically appraise individual blogs to assess their factual content.”
    Once again, I am in agreement with you. It’s sad that not enough people are able to critically appraise blogs, but I’m not sure I’d know how to begin addressing this. Food for thought though.

    Cheers,
    jdc

  18. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 21, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    Turning it around, -are- the independent schools claiming their staff blogs as charitable work, and what is the educational content of these? A casual guess would be that readers are told in the blog how wonderful independent schools are, which is probably the fallacy of assuming the conclusion.

  19. HilaryBurrage said,

    July 4, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    Maybe I’m indeed partisan, but I see no problem with individual blogging as a medium for sensible communication as long as (a) it’s written in the actual name of – or with full access to – the real identity of the blogger; and (b) said blogger is exceedingly clear about what’s opinion, against what’s demonstrably verifiable ‘fact’… with weblinks (aka ‘references’) as appropriate.

    I’d agree that blogging offers a real opportunity to clarify one’s thoughts about whatever-it-is; and it’s also a way of sharing.

    So on reflection I’d add a (c) to my conditions for non-problematic blogging, which is that the blogger should be prepared to publish all reasonable commentary on her / his blog, so the dialogue can develop.

    If all these conditions are met, would most people blogs can have value?

    Mind you, I would think that, wouldn’t I?

    Keep up the good work!
    Hilary

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