Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Terms and conditions apply - what went wrong?

Terms and Conditions by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
"If it's free then you are the product". Yes, we've heard that many times over the years but somehow chose not to take it so seriously. We merrily approved all the terms and conditions that popped up when we signed up for all of our social media networks and tools and kept on clicking. We basically gave Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest of them the freedom to gather enormous amounts of personal data and sell it to anyone willing to pay for it, whatever their motives. Now with Facebook in the eye of a storm of outrage and Google in similar trouble, we can see what the cost of "free" actually is. Basically most commercial online media that are "free" are also in the business of tracking and selling data to advertisers (read more in Doc Searls Weblog, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica problems are nothing compared to what’s coming for all of online publishing). At the same time we are so hooked on "free" that it's hard to break away. Try to imagine your digital life without all these commercial giants, especially Google. I'm trying to limit the damage at present by switching platforms (e.g. moving from Chrome to Vivaldi and searching with DuckDuckGo), going through all the security settings and so on, but it feels like I'm hopelessly enmeshed.

So what about education in an age where free has been compromised? So many communities of educators and students are built around Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. Do we close them down and move elsewhere and if so where to go? Some institutions offer safe platforms for staff and student blogs and wikis, as Tony Bates describes in his post Our responsibility in protecting institutional, student and personal data in online learning. There are also still plenty of open source wiki sites and other non-profit services but they lack the glitter and stickiness of the commercial solutions. Many users will no doubt set up new alternative networks and platforms but they involve considerable administration and development and will cost time and resources. Some will try to limit the damage and continue to use the old favourites but being more aware of their limitations (e.g. Siva Vaidhyanathan's article in the New York Times, Don’t Delete Facebook. Do Something About It). Whatever happens we need to revise our practices and attitudes.

One interesting aspect of this mess is raised in an excellent post by Autumn CainesPlatform Literacy in a Time of Mass Gaslighting – Or – That Time I Asked Cambridge Analytica for My Data. She proposes platform literacy as a key skill for the future; the awareness of the power that platforms have and the ability to limit the amount of data that platforms can acquire from you. Personalisation it seems has been the pied piper leading the children to their doom.

Personalization in learning and advertising is enabled by platforms. Just as there are deep problems with personalization of advertising, we will find it is multiplied by tens of thousands when we apply it to learning. Utopian views that ignore the problems of platforms and personalization are only going to end up looking like what we are seeing now with Facebook and CA. The thing that I can’t shake is this feeling that the platform itself is the thing that we need more people to understand.

Platforms gather data and data is the new oil. That crude data can now be distilled and some of the applications are proving to be deadly, threatening democracy itself. Maybe we are now beginning to realise what that often misused term "disruption" really means? Even our learning management systems are powerful platforms that gather data on students' interactions, access to material and performance. This can be used to enhance learning as many experts in learning analytics have demonstrated, but what if the data escapes into the wrong hands? We need to become more aware of the power of platforms and what we can and cannot share on them. 

What if we were really transparent with the data that learning systems have about students and focused on making the student aware of the existence of their data and emphasised their ownership over their data? What if we taught data literacy to the student with their own data?

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