Openness, Humanness, and Connectedness: or We can connect in the Open if you want to

In my last blog post I responded to the question “why does open matter” posed by #OpenEdMooc with the answer “because we are human” by proclaiming that open mattered because humans have a need to connect and because openness facilitates connectedness.

I came across an interesting response to my post from Benjamin Stewart that I did not notice before because Benjamin posted it as an Evernote note which I did not get a notification on but I did notice when he posted it to twitter. Benjamin asks if I’ve gone far enough in my thinking. He gives an example that one can connect without being in the open and gives examples of connecting through a clique or a closed group of like minded individuals.  

I appreciate the question – it makes me wonder about how open is open. Can one be open within a clique? Can a closed group have diverse minds? Then I start thinking about Blake and the doors of perception – about how I’ve argued that the doors are more than just open or closed but of many differing natures and states (glass doors, murphy doors, pocket doors… being propped, locked, ajar, and I could go on). But again I’ll stop myself from going down the rabbit hole as this post will be much longer and go in a different direction if I do.

Trying to stay somewhat short and on task I’ll address Benjamin’s concern by simply restating that it is my premise that open matters because are human. To extrapolate further – humans have a need to connect and openness facilitates connectedness…. however, I am not stating that humans have a need to connect in the open. I think that Benjamin is absolutely correct when he says that people can connect in closed groups. I would actually take it further and say that people will connect in closed groups. This is not antithetical to my point – I think that it actually makes my point.

I’m not one of those who demonize this closed connectedness – I think we need that too, though too much of it can be a problem. I see the problem with it as one of scale more so than it being an issue in the thing itself.

As we enter week 2 of #OpenEdMooc we are starting the conversation around copyright and how that plays with Open. The problem around Mickey Mouse and copyright has come up because here in the US every time the threshold of public domain draws near to Mickey going into the commons lobbyists petition the courts and the date is pushed forward another twenty years. Of course this does not just apply to Mickey but to all copyrighted works.

We don’t have to connect with Mickey – but if we wanted to – well it has to be one way and at a premium.

We don’t have to connect in the Open – but we can if you want to.

But we do have to connect.

Humans need to connect. With ideas, with one another, with language, with images, with emotions, with numbers, with color – I could go on. Extreme cases of humans being deprived of connections are abusive atrocities but lesser barriers are always going to exist. You can connect within closed systems or you can connect in the open but I think most people mix it up depending on your definition of ‘Open’. I like to connect in both in the broad sense; though when it comes to education I tend toward Open when I can. There are some for whom connecting in the open may be their only option because of money or other circumstance. So, when I think about why Open matters – I’m sure there are lots of reasons, but still, I say it is because we are human. 

Why Does Open Matter? because we are human

George Siemens and David Wiley have joined up to do a MOOC on Open Education and I feel as though, with my interest in the subject, I would be remiss if I did not at least dip my toe in…

I always find myself intrigued by those big broad questions and the guys have not let me down by asking in week one “why does open matter”. 

I’ve watched the videos, done some readings, read some of the participant blogs and tweets. Along with some personal reflection here goes my take on things.

The question is a hard one for me because I’m not sure that there are simple definitions for either “open” or “education” and I’m not happy with my own definition for either. Both of these words give me pause and raise more questions than answers for me. However, I will try to not get too “in the weeds” with definitions in this post.

If I have to answer this question simply, this question of why open matters, I would say it matters because we are human. Because it is in the nature of most humans to connect… in some way. It is what we do. (Often to each other, but not always). And openness facilitates connectedness.

It’s a big messy web. And it is bigger than technology. It is bigger than the internet – which is just the latest tool for making connections in the open.

Because it is in our nature to connect, somewhere along the way a premium was put on the ways that we connect – which was mostly through means of expression. An expression of knowledge, let’s say a book, is placed out of reach for most and only given to a few who can afford it. This proves lucrative in terms of growing capital and in terms of growing a certain kind of knowledge but alas not in terms of growing that kind of knowledge that serves the human spirit and it only feeds that human need to connect for a very few.

Simply, open matters because we are human; humans need to connect and openness facilitates connectedness.


Humans grow and thrive through connections but not all connections are equal.

Even if that book is put at a premium – one may not connect with it but they will connect (to something – someone), nonetheless.

Earlier today Siemens asked an intriguing question:

I do think that we will have gone wrong somewhere if we start thinking that open equals good.

Most of the platforms used to facilitate open connections and open education these days require a person to sign off on a terms of service that most never read and few could really understand. Often these platforms harvest the data that we generate through satisfying our need for connecting to feed our preferences and leanings back to us at a premium. I don’t find this “good”, yet I have a need to connect and so here I am.

While I think that open matters because humans have a need to connect fulfilling a need is not always good. We have a need to eat but if we eat junk food all the time that would not be “good” in terms of our health and wellbeing.

Some may say that junk food is not real food and others may say that junk food may be good in the moment as it might taste good. So perhaps getting in the weeds with definitions is not so bad afterall but if I would have tackled “what is open” or “what is education” this post would have been much different.

I’m looking forward to the next few weeks of the MOOC. I’ve just started a new job in De Pere WI as an Instructional Designer at St. Norbert College and I’ll be seeing if any of my new colleagues may be interested in these questions and others that I’m sure will be coming up in #OpenEdMOOC.


#DigCiz Reflections and a #DigPed Workshop

We just wrapped up a month long #DigCiz conversation and it was really unlike any of the others.

It was bigger for one thing.

I was informally running Twitter stats in the background and we consistently had between 200-400 people for any given week. Not massive by any means but growing. Though it was bigger than before and though it was online I’m still adamant that it was not a MOOC – it’s a conversation.  A conversation mediated by technology, sure, but a conversation, and not a course, nonetheless.

A #DigPed Workshop

Still, we learned a lot and as part of the continual processing and dissemination of that learning, I’m excited to point out (I’m not really announcing – the site has been up for awhile) that Sundi Richard and I will be collaborating in the flesh with participants for a 75 minute workshop during the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute. The workshop is broad so even if you did not follow along with #DigCiz, but are interested in digital citizenship in higher education and society at large it will be valuable.

If you are attending the Institute consider coming to our workshop! If you are not attending there is still time because registration is still open (as of the time of this posting anyway).

I realize trying to ask people to attend a whole institute for a 75 min workshop is a little crazy but there is so much to be learned at the Institute as a whole! It looks like there is still room in Data, Networks, and Domains tracks! These are led by some of the smartest people in the room (and by room I mean the internet) Kris Shaffer (Data), Maha Bali and Kate Bowles (Networks), and Martha Burtis (Domains).

And! Even though their tracks are full, hanging with the likes of Amy Collier, Sean Michael Morris, Jesse Stommel, and Chris Friend… Well come’on! I mean the prospect of running into these folks in the hallway is super cool in and of itself.

#DigCiz Reflections

Mostly what I really want in hashtag #DigCiz, is to have a broad conversation about “digital citizenship” that takes a critical look at both “digital” and “citizenship” and that moves beyond things like netiquette and cyberbullying. I think those things are important but I want them to be part of the conversation not the whole conversation.

I think that we have been pretty successful in creating conversation that does that but it also seems that a bit of a community is growing.

This last round of #DigCiz spurred a bit of a branching out…. meaning that there are all of these little side things that keep popping up even though our planned burst ended weeks ago.

For instance the other day Dr. Naomi Barnes decided to live tweet a reading of an article called Towards a Radical Digital Citizenship in Digital Education by Akwugo Emejulu and Callum McGregor using the #DigCiz tag.

This spurred a bunch of us to read it, and wow!! This is exactly the kind of thing that I’m talking about when I say that I want to think about digital citizenship in deeper and more critically.

Besides Naomi’s spontaneous contribution we also had this cool idea inspired by Bill Fitzgerald’s and Kristen Eshleman’s week to do a hypothesis annotation of a privacy policy. We chose to annotate the Slack privacy policy and it was really enlightening. So many of us are entering into these legal agreements when we use these services without even questioning what we are agreeing to. Using social annotation we can really dig in there and pull out the nuance of these documents for questioning, contextualizing, and clarifying.

Ever since Audrey Watters blocked annotation from her site I’ve been rethinking my use of hypothesis. I don’t think that Audrey is wrong (it is her site people) but I also see great benefit from annotating the web. Annotating privacy policies and TOS as a way to better understand them does not feel like I am impinging on anyone’s creative work. We are still doing some work to refine how we do this but I think it has promise.

Then, the other day on Twitter George Station was talking about Zeynep Tufekci’s new book Twitter and Tear Gas. Turned out Sundi and Daniel were about to read it as well as some others. I noodled George on Twitter about doing a #DigCiz book discussion and he took me up on it! I started into the book right away and wow!!! Again, this is more of what I’m looking for when I talk about a deeper look at Digital Citizenship.

In Short

A big part of why I can’t call DigCiz a MOOC is because I don’t feel like a teacher in DigCiz – I feel more like a learner.

However, I do turn around what I learn in DigCiz and teach it. I am planning a first year seminar in Digital Identities, Environments, and Citizenship to be taught in the fall and now I have this exciting opportunity to do the workshop at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute with Sundi.

If you are going to be at DPLI consider coming to our workshop. Sundi and I will be presenting together and we will be talking about many of the things that we have learned through these DigCiz conversations. We plan to present different scenarios that encompass facets of digital citizenship and ask participants to think about how we can present these to students for a deeper consideration of digital citizenship.

Also keep an eye on  cause you never know when a DigCiz blast could pop up.

#DigCiz Week 4 – Big Data Big Dreams: waking up about data collection in edtech

It is week 4 of #DigCiz and Kristen Eshleman and Bill Fitzgerald are leading us in a week of discussion around data security and the part that higher education institutions play. In the prompt Kristen questions the context of EDUCAUSE’s top 10 issues in IT and information security’s place in the #1 slot saying “when you read the description from this list, it’s pretty clear that our membership views information security policy not in the service of the individual digital citizen, but in the service of institutional IT systems.” Kristen states that though security breaches may be costly that higher education institutions are not in the business of data security (we are in the business of educating students) and goes on to say “we may be able to address the needs of institutions and individuals more effectively if we reframe the conversation from the lens of digital citizenship”

This really spoke to me in terms of how our professional organizations frame things to us as professionals. Often training and development from professional organizations is the way that many of us stay abreast of changes in the field. How professional organizations choose to frame these issues shapes how we bring these issues back to our institutions.

In response to the prompt Kristen and Bill held a synchronous video call and again this came up from Chris Gilliard and Amy Collier.

All of this reminded me of something I wrote several months ago about my attendance at the ELI National conference that at the time I’d decided not to publish. I was questioning the framing around the professional development I was getting and now, after hearing other colleagues similar concerns, it just feels so relevant that I can’t hold back.

I want to say that I felt really blessed to attend the conference and to present on digital citizenship but because of various experiences, which I will outline, I am now asking questions about what educational technology is for and why we are doing this.

It is not the job of digital pedagogues—or digital aficionados, or digital humanists, or educational technologists, or instructional designers—to force people to go digital. When we make it our mission to convert non-digital folks to our digital purpose, we will not only very likely alienate these valuable colleagues, but we’ll also miss the mark of our true intention: to support learning and scholarship within institutions that, in our heart of hearts, we adore.” – Sean Michael Morris 

If the focus of edtech is simply to implement technology for the sake of technology are we not vulnerable to the money and power that is backing those solutions? I’m negotiating ideas around how we are influenced in environments of professional development in edtech and what our responsibilities are as professionals, educators, and citizens. It seems to me of critical importance to be aware of how we are influenced in the environments where we place ourselves. I’m contemplating how we bring these experiences back to our institutions and how we influence our campus communities after attending them.

But anyway – onto the lived experience part:


Having come from a more traditional IT background and then moving to an academic technology environment I was excited to attend the EDUCAUSE ELI conference. I’d always been told that the big EDUCAUSE main conference, which I have attended many times, was for that traditional IT audience but that ELI was more focused on educators.

While registering for the conference I was surprised to find that I had been automatically opted into being geographically tracked using beacons while I was onsite in Houston at the conference. Mind you I was opted in by default – I had to specifically indicate that I did not want my physical location tracked. I choose to opt out of this because I didn’t really understand what exactly it all entailed, but I can imagine.

I would imagine this tracking means EDUCAUSE (or ELI as the case might be) knows where I spend my time at the conference. What vendor booths and sessions I attended. If I took a lunch at the conference or if I went out. How much time I might have spent in the hallway. Maybe even which of my colleagues, who are also being tracked, that I’m spending time with while I’m at the conference. 

There are just some key questions that I could not find answers to – These are increasingly the same questions that I keep having with all of these data collection tools be it facebook and google or educational systems:

  • Do I get access to my data?
  • Who exactly owns these data?
  • Are these data for sale?
  • Could these data be turned over to government agencies – raw or analyzed?
  • Do vendors get access to my data – raw or analyzed?
  • Do I get access to the algorithms that will be applied to my data?
  • Is someone going to explain those algorithms to me – cause I’m not a data scientist.
  • Are the data anonymized?
  • Are these data used only in aggregate or can they be used to target me specifically?
  • How long will these data be retained? – Will they be tracked over time either in aggregate and/or individually?
  • Who has access to these data?

Once I arrived on site I found many participants who had these extra little plastic tabs stuck to their name badges and quickly found out that these were the tracking tags. In several of the session rooms and around the conference in other areas I found mid-sized plastic boxes with handles under chairs and in corners with the name of the beacon company on them.

I don’t remember information that could have answered any of the questions I listed above being provided during registration. I did not seek out anyone organizing ELI about this or anyone representing the vendor.  However, while I was onsite at ELI this started to bother me enough that I asked plenty of the participants at the conference these kind of questions. While I mostly got into very interesting conversations I did not find anyone who could answer those questions for me.

So What?

This bothers me because if educational technology professionals are giving over their data at professional development events geared toward educating us about innovations in educational technology, shouldn’t we be able to answer those questions? Why do so many of us assume benevolence and hand our data over without having those answers?

Many of us might think that we know those entities to whom we are giving our data away to but even if we think that it is a trusted professional organization, companies and organizations are changing all of the time switching out leadership and missions. Throw in the possibility of the data being sold and we have no idea what is going on with our data.

After attending larger conferences I have felt targeted by vendors and I have heard about horror stories from other female colleagues (who actually have purchasing power) at the lengths vendors will go through to get a closed door meeting. I can imagine scenarios where my data is used to the benefit of vendors over my own benefit or that of my institution.

When our professional organizations do not prompt us to think critically about data collection and when we are automatically opted into turning over our own data without question it is no wonder we don’t question taking students’ data without informing them. We are compelled by those who are teaching us about data collection that this is normal and we pass that on to our institutions.

ELI is not alone in this of course, it happens with most of the professional organizations with corporate sponsorship and with most of the corporate digital tools used for education and social interactions. However, I’m concerned when one of the major professional organizations in my field is perpetuating this normalization of data surveillance in a time when we are seeing the rights of our most vulnerable students threatened. Yet I continue to see a proliferation of this mindset that more data is always good without so much as a mention of who really owns it, how will it be used, and how can that usage change over time.

This was also evident with the first keynote presentation at ELI from a non-profit called Digital Promise. The CEO Karen Cator talked about the many products that they are developing but it was the Learner Positioning System that got me thinking about these issues. Listening to the level of personalization that was associated with this tool I could only imagine the amount of data being collected on students who were using it. The presenter made it clear at the beginning that it was the first time that she had delivered the talk and that it was a work in progress but it was hard for me to forgive no mention of the data security and ownership around a project like this. It became just another example of how the conference was glorifying and fetishizing the collection of data without any real critical reflection on what it all means.

Audrey Watters writes about about how students have to comply with the collection of their intimate data and that they don’t even get the choice to opt out. She takes a historical look at how “big data” of the 1940’s was used to identify Jews, Roma, and other ‘undesirables’ so that they could be imprisoned. She writes “Again, the risk isn’t only hacking. It’s amassing data in the first place. It’s profiling. It’s tracking. It’s surveilling. It’s identifying ‘students at risk’ and students who are ‘risks.’”

I am concerned that we are creating a culture of unquestioned data collection so much so that even those who are supposed to be the smartest people on our campuses about these matters give over their data without question. Professionals return to their campuses from events like ELI with an impression that this level of data surveillance is always good without question and that data collection is normal.

I believe that big data and personalization engines can be extremely “effective” in education but sometimes it is precisely this “effectiveness” that makes me question them. The word“effective” communicates a kind of shorter path to success; a quicker way to get to an end goal of some kind. However, the value of that end goal could be nefarious or benevolent. None of us like to think that our campus’ could use data for iniquitous ends but often these negative effects come from models being applied in new ways that they were not designed for or emerge later to show reflection of unconscious biases.

We saw this last year when the president of St. Mary’s University was let go after speaking in a disparaging way about at-risk students – wanting to get them out of the pipeline within the first few weeks of classes. I’m sympathetic to the point of view that we want to identify at-risk students so that we can help them stay but in this situation at-risk students were being identified (by a survey developed by the president’s office) specifically so that they could be encouraged to leave.

I think that we should be asking, and getting students to ask, what does success look like and what is the end goal. I don’t feel like that question has really been answered in higher education. It is really hard to think of data collection as something potentially dangerous when it is an education company or institution and the end goal is “student success”.  Of course we all want our students to be successful but let’s not forget that these data can be put together in various ways.

Let’s also not forget that we are giving students subtle and not so subtle cues about what is acceptable and what is not. Will our students think of asking questions about ownership, security, and privacy around their data once they graduate if we take and keep their data from them while they are with us? Or will they assume benevolence from everyone who asks them for access?

We need more education in our educational technology. Students are tracked and their data are mined all over the web; often I am reminded that we are not going to be able to change that. However, we could provide transparency while they are with us and get them to start asking questions about what data can be gathered about them, how it can be used, and what impacts that might have on their lives.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our professional organizations would help us to demand transparency of our personal data so that we could better imagine the possibilities of how it can be used?

Image Credit Ash –  Playing with Fire – Gifted to Subject 

I would like to thank Amy Collier and Chris Gilliard for providing feedback on an early draft of this post. The two of you always make me think deeper.

What is DigCiz and Why I am Not Marina Abramovic: thoughts on theory and practice


Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt just finished a round of facilitation in the #DigCiz conversation where they challenged us to think about moving away from a personal responsibility model of digital citizenship. In a joint blog post they spend time distinguishing digital citizenship from cybersaftey and present Jole Westheimer’s work identifying three different types of citizens to ultimately ask “What kind of (digital) citizen” are we talking about.

Additionally, this week, outside of our #DigCiz hashtag, Josie Fraser blogged about some views around digital citizenship. Here we see Josie, reminiscent of Katia and Alec, making a distinction between digital citizenship and what she identifies as e-safety but also setting it apart from digital literacy. Josie presents a venn diagram where digital citizenship is one part of a larger interaction overlapping with e-safety and digital literacy.

In other DigCiz news, this week a group of us (Sundi and I included) who presented at the annual ELI conference in Houston on digital citizenship in the liberal arts published an EDUCAUSE Review article highlighting four different digital citizenship initiatives inside of our institutions.

All of this is on the tails of our first week of #DigCiz where Mia Zamora and Bonnie Stewart troubled the idea of digital citizenship. In a post about this Bonnie artfully lays out the conflict of utopian narratives of the web as a tool for democracy with the realities of what I’m more and more just lumping under Shoshana Zubhoff’s concept of Surveillance Capitalism though you could just say it is the general Silicon Valley ethos.

But I want to get back to Katia and Alec’s call to move the conversation beyond personal responsibility. Often, digital citizenship is lumped in with things like digital/information literacy, nettiquette, online safety, and a whole host of other concepts. Often these are just variations of issues that existed way before the “digital” but are complicated by the digital.

I’m considering Katia and Alec’s call, reflecting on all of these posts and articles as well as the last year and several months of thinking and conversing about this topic on #DigCiz and I can’t help but feel like we are in the weeds on this concept.

So here it is – my foundational, basic, details ripped away, 10,000 foot view at digital citizenship where things like safety and literacy are part of the model but not the whole thing.

I’ve thought about digital citizenship like this for some time and Josie’s post reminded me the idea of representing it as a venn diagram and though some of the overlaps are messy I think that is normal.

I really want to focus and drill down on digital citizenship so I put it in the middle and zoom out from there. The factors that I see at play around digital citizenship are environments and people. In terms of people there is the individual and then others. Since this is “digital” citizenship they are digital environments and identities. The items in the overlaps are messy part. This is draft one.

Draft 1 – Autumm’s Digital Citizenship model CC-BY-ND

This is a really broad model but I think that digital citizenship is a really broad concept and that a narrow model would not do. I think part of the problem that we get into with confusing digital citizenship with digital literacy, cybersafety, netiquette or any other number of similar ideas has to do with narrowly defined models that do not allow for liminality or overlap.

In theory that is… but that brings me to the second half of this post.


I hope that the web still can exist as a place for community building, artistic expression, and civic discourse but I fear that use for it is shrinking under the pressures of its uses as an advertising and surveillance tool. 

I worry that as we are used and targeted by systems that we have been normalized to the experience of being used and targeted. Resulting in us feeling that using and targeting others does not seem like such a big deal.



In 1974 performance artist Marina Abramovic produced and performed Rhythm 0.  

I rather like the idea of performance art. Making an artistic statement not through polished practice but rather through the practice of a lived moment.

In Rhythm 0, Abramovic wanted to experiment with giving the public pure access to engage with her actual in-the-flesh self.

She stood for six hours in front of a table with all manner of objects for pleasure and pain with a statement that told the public that they could engage with her however they saw fit.

She was a type of living doll.

Quickly the public forgot that she was a person. She had told them that she was an object after all. So fast they moved from tickling her with the feathers or kissing her on the cheek to cutting her with the razors. She said she was ready to die for this experiment. She said she took full responsibility. One of the objects was a loaded gun. Someone went as far as to put it in her own hand and hold it to her head and see if they could make her pull the trigger.

But why? Why when given the chance to engage with her would people choose to harm her of all the choices of things that they could do to her?

What happens when we interact with people? Is it about us or is it about them? Are we seeing people with lives and needs and wants and fears and all the messy that is human? Or are we seeing an object that we want to interaction with… for our sense of good or bad or pain or pleasure?

I’m not sure much has changed since 1974 when Marina Abramovic first performed this piece. I’m not sure if given the choice between tools of violence and tools of peace that the public will choose peace even today.

I’m not Marina Abramovic

#DigCiz is not Rythem 0



I think we need to look at ourselves and our communities and ask why we are engaging with each other. Is it out of a selfish need for engagement? Is there a hope for beneficial reciprocation? Is there a concept of consent being considered? 

I think we need to look at our tools and wonder why we are engaging with them and the companies behind them. As they say if you are not paying you are  probably the product.

Environment shapes identity. Identity shapes other’s identities. I fear that we are shaping each other mindlessly. I fear that we are not just shaping each other but that the predatory environments we use are additionally shaping us.

I think we start to change by knowing ourselves first and then engaging where we think we will find recripciotaton, and by recripciotation I don’t mean comments and I don’t mean reply. I mean really trying to listen to one another and getting to know one another. Caring about how we think the other may want to engage and not just satisfying some hunger for engagement.

Going Forward

#DigCiz continues next week and I’m hopeful that we will start to explore these nuances of engagement even deeper as Maha Bali and Kate Bowles take the wheel. Keep an eye on #DigCiz on key social media outlets and

Image credit CC0 Dimitris Doukas free on Pixabay

I’d also like to thank Sundi Richard, Maha Bali, and Mia Zamora for looking at a very early draft of this piece and giving much needed feedback. You each help me be better every day – thank you.

Thoughts on Sync Video Conversations

It has been a while since I’ve posted – I’ve been dealing with a bit of writer’s block. Theoretically, politically, philosophically my mind is racing too fast and I can’t seem to get any of it down. To try to break the block I’m going to set it all aside and go for a simple technical post.

Through my work with Virtually Connecting I do a lot of synchronous video calls so I’ve developed some thoughts on formats, techniques, and technologies. Though warning – I will NOT be advocating, admonishing, reviewing, or even mentioning by name any specific brand of technology for sync video in this post – cause that is how I roll. I see more and more people doing sync video conversations so I’m hoping this will be helpful or start further conversation.

Why Sync Video

Sync video is not always the answer. You have little time for reflection in sync conversations so you need to be more “on”. There is something more vulnerable about sync video than other kinds of technologically mediated communications. Still, as with most things, opening to that vulnerability brings possibilities of a rich experience. Seeing facial expressions instead of emojis, hearing laughter rather than just a lol; this is the kind of immediate feedback that we should be looking to give rather than numbers on a dashboard.

Use sync video when you want to have a conversation.

Silence is Golden?

I’ve yet to work with any system that I really felt was 100% synchronous. There is always a little bit of a lag. You should know this going in and be okay with it. There might be times where no one is talking because they are still listening to what you just said – because it is taking longer for the audio to reach them. These days it is really much better than in the past and it should not be more than a couple of seconds on a day when you have a bad connection for whatever reason. However, if it is too bad you may have to look for other options.

The problem is that those silences do not feel good. They break up the flow and make things seem off. Even in face to face conversations we have all had awkward silences, the technology cannot help with those. If you are trained in media studies then the feeling is even going to be worse for you because you have been conditioned to avoid “dead air”. If you are broadcasting or recording your conversation then it can be even worse and you may even face the opposite problem where everyone is so afraid of dead air that they step on one another trying to avoid it. You don’t have to fear dead air. You can warn your participants about lag before the conversation if they are new to sync video and let them know that natural pauses for reflection and listening are normal and okay.

At the same time there are moments where hospitality can avoid awkward dead air that is not needed. The most obvious for me is when you have a large group and you ask them to do introductions. They don’t know what order to go in. Sync video gets strange with two people starting at the same time. No one wants to go first and no one wants to step on anyone else. So, everyone just sort of sits there looking at one another. Here is where I think you need someone to host. Someone needs to call on people and invite them to introduce themselves. If everyone knows one another really well maybe you don’t need this but it is still nice. I have tried to organize the order before hand or even in the moment and communicate it out to everyone but it just never really works for me. People always forget the order, they are not looking at the chat where I posted the order, or they think the order is different than what I said. It just seems so much nicer to me to just invite people one by one to introduce themselves.

Audio is Often More Important than Video

When you first start doing sync video you might think it is the video that makes it a rich conversation. Well, yes and no. I have a sync video project right now where students will be paying particular attention to nonverbal cues while someone is telling a story. It is a listening exercise. Here video is going to be key. In my past I’ve done some work with the deaf community in terms of sync video – again video is key. Is video really needed for your conversation?

If it is not really needed I would still argue that it can make for a richer conversation; so I’m not saying don’t do video unless you absolutely need it. However, technical issues can make it so that you need to back off. Video takes a lot of bandwidth and if you are in a lower bandwidth situation turning off your video can free things up so that you can continue what is important – the conversation.

And the one everyone forgets – I bet you have a phone. If technical issues around video are too much, call the person. One of my favorite stories is when I was set to have a sync video call with Bob Cole and Joe Antonioli and as the time neared I happened to be backchanneling with Sean Michael Morris when it became clear that it would be great to have him on the call. But Sean was in a coffee shop with really limited wifi. We tried, but it was no go. So I was like “hey you have your phone don’t you”…. I had to put Sean on speaker and hold the phone up to my mic when he wanted to speak, but you know what – we had that conversation.

Seeing the Person(s)

I think it has something to do with the immediacy of it. And yes, it is visual but so much of it is the audio in sync with the visual. However, I think some of it is tactile too – where the vibrations that someone makes come through to me in almost realtime touching my ears or when I see someone throw their hair to the side and get some sense of its texture.

Different platforms treat visuals differently and video may only be one element. Some try to be everything to everyone and break the screen up into other boxes. A box for video, a box for sharing documents, a box for chat, a box for listing the participants, a box for drawing on a whiteboard… If you are working with something like this take time to think about the environment and what is most important. If the conversation is most important make the video the big box and put it in the center. If this is the case look at your lighting and make sure you don’t have a light source behind you like a window. Think about your physical environment, your background, tidy up or even think about things that might be nice to have in the background.

When having a conversation with more than one person different platforms have different approaches. Some privilege the speaker, having a large video of one camera at a time with smaller thumbnails of everyone else on the bottom. The person who appears on the large part of the screen is determined by the audio – whoever has the mic’s attention has the floor. Other times the video is controlled by a host. Still, some platform layouts shrink the video of everyone as members join the call to give equal screen real estate to all. What is best? What kind of conversation do you want to have?

I’ll be honest, I’m biased toward the speaker getting the camera. Listening is done with more than the ears and if someone is speaking I want to see them. I get that it visually minimizes everyone else. I’m sympathetic to the argument for equality that some make for the set-up that shares the space with all. Using this layout I have felt more like everyone is present and no one is any larger than anyone else but I’ve also been distracted by someone who is not speaking who is fidgeting or something. I like the ability to switch back and forth between these layouts because to listen best I like to see.

So, Why Sync Video Again?

You know what I can’t stand – webinars. Why make people come together to listen to you if you are not going to listen to them? Just record the thing and let them listen to it on their own terms. For me, sync video is about a complex interplay of combining the communication senses to further understanding, and ultimately it is about conversation. It is about seeing but it is also about being seen, it is about talking but it is also about listening, and it is about being vulnerable and being brave. It is not for everyone and it is not for every situation. There are many options, there are still many barriers, for me it is about learning and playing with the possibilities afforded through tech, design, and delivery.

Image Credit: Me, Electric Lavender 3, CC0 

Going Clear: A Call for Conversation around the Ethics of Mobile Live Streaming from #OER17 and Other Events

Last year I read Dave Eggers’ The Circle, a dystopian novel about technology, social media, and society gone wrong. By the end of the novel the lead character is engaging in a process called “going clear” where she is live streaming her entire life save sleeping and going to the bathroom. It is pretty creepy. I’m not ready to go clear but I like to do live streams from my phone when I’m attending conferences and I want to evaluate my usage because I do think that this technology can be overreaching and even dangerous. I’m interested in the ethical pursuit of technology in my work so I think about this stuff a lot.

My work with Virtually Connecting has made me sensitive to things like making sure when we go live in a public hallway that we have a wall behind us and not a walkthrough – to be sure that people who are passing by do not get caught in the livestream. But it is more than just visuals – live stream can pick up background conversations and other audio that others may not want out there too.

There have been calls for me to live stream from #OER17 and I’m thrilled to do it. Maha asked Martin Hawksey if it was okay to do personal mobile livestream and he said he had concerns about the Wifi bandwidth but as long as presenters were okay with it that was fine. I have a good data plan that I can use in UK so I think I can still do it and not bog down the conference wifi. Battery life is more of a concern to me than bandwidth at this point.

But I’m wondering about those ethical concerns of live stream not just conference sessions but also social time.

Consent is huge for me. During a scheduled conference session I can ask the presenter but I think I might also ask the presenter to make an announcement to the audience that the stream is happening.

I’ve had wonderful experiences live streaming social situations. I’ve had great circumstances where it was just a lot of fun for everyone involved and people watching have told me that they love it and that it makes them feel like they are really a part of the conference. However, consent can be tricky with a group of people. I’ve had situations where even though I’ve announced that I’m going live not everyone in the group caught that and if we are in public what about strangers who might just wander into my shot?

There is also something important about addressing the camera. Talking to an audience even if no one is currently watching. It is a hospitality thing but really an ethical concern about the background audio for me. There are lots of beautiful visual elements that can be fun to live stream without putting my face in the camera and saying “hey look at this”. But to just start up a recorded live stream without directing the audience’s audible experience means that you are publicizing the ambient sounds, with I’m fine with if it is birds chirping or street music but feel a little concerned about for background conversations.

What else should I be thinking about as I consider live streaming from #OER17? Much of this is an experiment for me but how do I do that ethically? What technology should I use? What is the best way to confirm consent? How do I empower people to say no? Has anyone else done this from a conference? What ethical concerns do you have? It seems to me that live streaming is a great tool for open education but what are the ethical implications?

The Paradox of Inclusion: Reflections prior to presenting at #OER17

Some of us have been accepted to present at OER17 reflecting on Virtually Connecting (VConnecting or VC) as an approach to open and inclusive conferences. The name of our panel is Breaking the physical presence barrier: Virtually Connecting as an approach to open, inclusive conferences. I am absolutely thrilled to be able to present with Martin Weller, Maha Bali, Sue Beckingham, Mia Zamora, and Rebecca Hogue and to be able to travel to London to be there in the flesh (it will be my first time in the UK). The date of the conference will mark the second anniversary of Virtually Connecting and there are plenty of questions about how to sustain or even grow the movement.

I joined VC just as I was finishing my Master’s work in EdTech, and it has lent itself very nicely as a continuation of my studies. Through this work I have been able to attend conferences from around the world virtually and have conversations with those who are working and researching some of the latest aspects of our field. I see VConnecting as wonderfully inclusive but I know that is not everyone’s perspective. There have been plenty of criticisms and even all out attacks on the work that we do. I have come to find the aspect of inclusion stated in our manifesto to be a paradoxical and confusing one. I am excited and nervous about doing work in this area. I realize that this work needs to happen if we are to continue forward but I find it deeply uncomfortable. I’m thankful for the opportunity to dig deeper,face this uncomfortableness, and attempt to find some clarity on these matters.


I’m hoping for this post to be a sort of hybrid of a research paper and a blog post. We obtained IRB approval from the American University of Cairo before conducting this research so the research is more formal than most of my blog posts. However, I will not be doing a comprehensive review of the data and much of my thinking in this area are still developing so there will some thinking out loud. Considering that this research was conducted for a panel for OER17, I could not think of a better way to put my initial thoughts out in the open and ask for feedback than to publicly blog about my initial thoughts.

Three focus groups were held via Google Hangout/YouTube Live over a seven day period with twelve different participants. Participants were chosen who had prior experience with VConnecting and care was given to choose those who had diverse perspectives in terms of the different roles that they have held with VC: virtually or onsite, guest or participant, and even those who have indicated that they participate by listening to the recorded conversations. Because inclusivity was central to the researchers’ interests and because past criticisms around inclusivity were known to the researchers, we were careful to include those who had pointed out problems or had various criticisms around inclusivity in Virtually Connecting. These attitudes and perceptions of VConnecting held by the participants were determined by referencing a 2016 survey, prior informal conversations, and public communications such as tweets and blog posts.

Conversations were scheduled for one hour though focus group three did go on for two hours. Prior to the meeting all participants were made aware and gave consent to the fact that that the conversations were being recorded as an unlisted YouTube video. After the meeting further consent was obtained by all participants to publicly link to the videos and to reference them in further reflections around this research.

Participants in Focus Group One

Laura Gogia

Jamison Miller

Joseph Murphy


Participants in Focus Group Two

Nadine Aboulmagd

Sheri Spelic

Bonnie Stewart

Harriet Watkins


Participants in Focus Group Three

Kate Bowles

Chris Gilliard

Carl Moore

George Station

Audrey Watters

A common set of questions were referenced for all focus groups, though in practice the question order and delivery varied slightly from group to group. Groups one and three were led by Maha Bali and I led group two. The researchers did not create a formal interview plan prior to the focus group sessions but each session proceeded with an intention from all researchers that we were there to listen more than talk. Not all researchers were present for all sessions though I was present for all sessions. I further reviewed the recordings in preparation of this post.

This research specifically focused on the first two items of Virtually Connecting’s manifesto:

  1. We are motivated by a desire to improve the virtual conference experience for those who cannot be present at conferences for financial, logistical, social or health reasons. This often includes unaffiliated scholars, graduate students, adjuncts, moms of young kids, and people from developing countries or countries far away from where most academic conferences are held.
  2. While our aim is to be inclusive, we recognize that inclusion is elusive. When others point out to us ways to be more inclusive we try them. We are trying to both support the development of social capital for people who cannot attend conferences, and to generously do so as widely as we are able. We try to welcome and create space for new people to participate. The way we have expanded means many who were participants are now part of the team and this creates more space for new participants as we widen our circle


I am not going to discuss responses to the full list of questions here but rather focus on three main themes that I found of particular interest that emerged from the conversations.

In what ways is Virtually Connecting inclusive?

In what ways is Virtually Connecting exclusive?

What are some ideas for the future?

I will not be able to reference every participant in this post but for the ones that I do reference I will include a time stamped YouTube link to the moment in the video that I am referencing. To the best of my ability I will contextualize the reference so as to give the best depiction of my understanding of that quote.

Us and them

During focus group two Harriet Watkins speaks about how the recordings allow for a layer of inclusivity to those who cannot overcome the barrier of synchronicity. Harriet mentions that she has listened to tons of VC session recordings when she has not been able to participate in real time. She says “I appreciate that the inclusivity extends beyond the real time event when it is happening” and states that she is interacting with the dialog while she is watching.

However, in juxtaposition to the idea of the recordings being inclusive, in focus group one Laura Gogia reflects on how by being a community that has come to know one another Virtually Connecting often exudes an informal fellowship that sometimes uses specialized language to communicate. She points out that this familiarity can be intimidating for new people and that recording someone who is struggling to fit in could be uncomfortable. She imagines how someone who has never had experience with VC could feel like they are not part of things and points out that the joining can be perceived as “high stakes” for several reasons, one of which is the recording.

I found this contrast between Harriet and Laura to be of particular interest. A few months ago in a post that I authored for the Digital Pedagogy Lab Blog entitled The Praxis of Virtually Connecting I reflected on a similar contrast. How when I was first joining VConnecting the recordings contributed to anxiety (as a part of general social anxiety of meeting a bunch of new people) while I was in the session but also served as an opportunity to go back and listen where I might not have been able to do so because of that anxiety.

This is just a small example of how when I consider the prospect of inclusivity in this research I find myself in paradox. In one case the recording is bringing in people who could not make it at a specific time and in another it might be driving people away who would otherwise join at that specific time. I cannot find a way to reconcile this particular paradox. I try to be a strong proponent of those who like to listen and I can’t imagine cutting them out by not doing the recordings. I suppose we could offer some sessions as recorded and some as not but it feels like that is always going to be a problem.

The inclusivity paradox is deeper than just the choice of recording or not at its heart it often comes back to the very fact of our existence. We have often been criticized for being a community. For knowing and liking one another. Some say this camaraderie can be intimidating for some, hindering our ability to bring in new people, while at the same time it is something that holds us together.

Jamison Miller seemed to see both sides. In asking what ways VC is inclusive Jamison talked about VC “piercing the bubble” of those who are at the conference by bringing in outside perspectives. However, when asked about how we are not being inclusive he also saw how a casual and informal tone can seem intimidating for those who are not already on the inside of a community.

Yet, Joe Murphy says that what has been most useful to him has been the opportunity to make personal connections. How do we reconcile the fact that we are a community with the fact that some people will feel outside of the community because of the very things that make us a community? The only answer I have here is hospitality. To welcome people in, listen to their needs, and try to be accommodating. Do this research to better understand ourselves, try to reflect, and be mindful of these things.

Inclusivity vs Dismantling Privilege

`In focus group three we found the term inclusivity itself to be a troubled term and started to explore the term “dismantling privilege”. This opened up a discussion started by Kate Bowels about the prestige economy and if VC could challenge privilege while being a part of the conference. The question: “is it harder to be critical because you’ve been included” came up. Chris Gilliard, with Audrey Watters agreement, answered in a personal way which was outside of VC but which I think begs some interesting questions. Chris argued that there was a designated role for some (in this case himself) to be critical as presenter or keynote at the conference. Could VC also be perceived to have a designated critical role at the conference? Do we already? Could this critical perspective help us to better “dismantle privilege”?

Yet there is also an ongoing criticism around a perception of VC working within the privilege economy. I’ve talked with Chris Gilliard about this in the past and he brought it up during the focus group. Quick disclaimer – I have always felt that VC was an assault on the idea of stardom, because of the very reasons of “high stakes” joining discussed above. The idea of stardom evokes in me a concern for image and asking someone to join a conversation with strangers, in a hallway, that may not be sanctioned by the conference organizers, that will be broadcast over the Internet and recorded seems like a potential threat to image and face to me.

I do see the other side. I see that there is a privilege economy that VC takes advantage of when we ask those who are keynoting the conference to come and speak with us. When we put their pictures on our blog post header and promote the date and time that we will be speaking with them we are playing into that. Audrey Watters noted how this marketing makes her uncomfortable but notes that it is the same uncomfortableness that she she feels when she is marketed as a keynote. I have to wonder how many of these criticisms of VC could also just be applied to the general conference culture. I have to wonder if it is VC’s duty to overcome all of these?

Rebecca brought in the Audre Lorde quote “you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools”. I challenged this by remembering during DigPed Tressie McMillan Cottom saying that the quote was over exaggerated and that you do need some tools. That we always have to use the master’s tools “to some extent”. Maha seemed to agree with this sentiment. (Disclaimer: my quoting of Tressie is completely from memory. I quickly reviewed the video of her keynote from DigPed looking for that particular statement but I could not find it. Apologies in advance if I have misspoke). After we broke it down a bit Rebecca also saw the other side from a patient perspective stating that the patient needs the doctor’s expertise but also needs the doctor to hear about their lived experience. I’ve always felt like the marketing was a sort of a necessary thing that we had to do to play the game but it has never been the foremost thing for me. Most of the “celebrities” that we’ve met I didn’t even know before VC. I’ve been very grateful to VC for introducing me to the work of some amazing people.

Another barrier of inclusivity is often drawn between those who are at the conference and those who are not at the conference. The first point of the manifesto is that we are there to enhance the virtual conference experience. In my mind this is our primary constituency. However, it is questioned that those Who are at the conference on ground have to take time out to meet with the virtual people. I can see how that possibility exists – especially for speakers and conference organizers who are already busy. The suggestion is that perhaps this is disruptive to their on ground/in the flesh experience of the conference. However, George Station mentioned in focus group three that he found the VC experience to actually enhance the onsite experience by having a window to people outside of the conference. Once again enter the paradox, it is also pointed out a few times in several of the groups that VC allows for a small group to go off and have some time with the keynote speakers. It is noted that this is not fair for others on site who would often not get that option.

Challenging or Promoting?

I find these particular overlapping messy point about access to academic stardom and celebrity alongside power structures of onsite vs virtual of interest and feel that I need to unpack it more. Here is where I go much less research paper and more thinking out loud blog post style.

I have often seen many attending conferences rush to the front of the room to get a few moments with the speaker be it a session speaker or keynote speaker. This is not as possible at really large conferences where the speaker prepares and retires to a backstage area with a green room of sorts. Those are usually the kind of conferences where the stage is lit up like a rock concert. However,I have only ever seen this at the largest of corporate sponsored conferences and find that this is often not the case.

Often, the stage is some risers in a hotel ballroom and yes there are a few hundred people present but when the speaker comes off stage they are just coming off the riser not escaping to backstage privacy. I will say that in seeing people approach speakers either before or after a talk often they just spend a few moments with them and then break away. I have never noticed anyone take a speaker aside and have more conversation with them for another twenty to thirty minutes the way that Virtually Connecting does but I have also never followed and studied a situation like this. I’m not sure that it is not happening. Perhaps this does happen but we just don’t see it because it is not broadcast live and recorded.

I want to challenge the idea that this is a problem for Virtually Connecting. First, I’m not sure that we have any proof that this does not happen face to face. Second, if it does happen face to face I think that it is a good thing. If the speaker wants to go off and have a conversation with some of the participants what is wrong with that? I would think that this could be insightful for the speaker and the participant to debrief and grow from each of their perceptions of the talk that was just given. I’m still unclear why this would be considered a problem if it were to happen in the flesh and so I have a hard time with criticisms of doing it virtually. If VC can facilitate conversations to these ends and contribute to the commons through broadcasting and recording that conversation while we are doing it I feel it is all the better.

Yet I see the paradox. I see how the community can be a barrier to itself. How the recordings can bring people in and yet still shut others out. How the celebrity can simultaneously be challenged and perpetuated. I’m struggling with how to resolve these paradoxes. I feel very strongly that the first step will be to identify them and articulate explicitly on which side our intentions exist.


There is a lot to unpack from these videos and these conversations. This post is just a first attempt at getting some first impressions down on the page for further feedback and reflection. I’m hopeful that the other researchers on this project, others in the VC community, and even those beyond will see this and have some further thoughts.

In terms of next steps Sherri Spelic’s idea of VC trying to bridge the gap between those in K-12 and higher ed is something that I am always struggling with and would welcome. Also Bonnie Stewart’s idea of growing to be more inclusive of those that are wanting to be more resident online is something that resonates with me.

I am hopeful that there will be more reflection and more feedback in the months that follow. Please join us by responding to this post in the comments or with your own post, writing about your own experiences with and impressions of Virtually Connecting, watching the focus groups (linked above), or attending our presentation at OER17 in London on April 5th.
Image Credit CC0 obtained from Pixabay

Image metaphor The Law of Included Fragments 

Associative Trails Around DigCiz, Fake News, and Microtargeting

Microtargeting: A Digital Citizen’s Perspective

I started writing this post about fake news and microtargeting a few days ago and then I was reminded that #OpenLearning17 was talking about Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think this week. I began to see connections between how they might relate. It made this post even longer but I think it was worth it.

Some background if you don’t know: Bush’s article was written in 1945 as the war was ending. He was the Director of Scientific Research and Development during this time so he was all about applying science in warfare. In the article he is envisioning where scientists will put their energies as the war is ending.

Now, as peace approaches, one asks where they [scientists] will find objectives worthy of their best.

The article focuses on the connections we make when we build knowledge. How we associate past discoveries with current ones and tie things together. Bush advocates using technology to track the connections that we make in this process to extend memory for better reflection on those connections. Many credit this article with predicting the Internet.

He uses this term “associative trails” to describe indexing knowledge based on connections that we define. He thinks this is more powerful than typical kinds of indexing like sorting by number or alphabetizing. But I note that this is a much more personalized kind of indexing.

He is advocating for metacognition, that is, realizing what you are thinking and where your trails lie so you can better understand what you are researching, yes, but more importantly your own thought processes. What I am wondering about is what happens when you get the technology part but you leave out the metacognitive part? Bush does not seem to consider this option but I think this is often the world that we live in today.

When I start thinking about fake news and microtargeting I have to ask what if a person does not have access to their associative trails? What if they don’t even realize they are leaving a trail? What if they think that their trail is not so important? What if someone’s trail could be bought and sold? What does the record of all our connections say about us and can it be used in ways that might be exploitive?

I’m not a data scientist. I’m not a journalist. I’m not a librarian.

I am a technologist. I am an educator. I am a person. A person who lives some of her life on the web. I want to say a lot of her life on the web…. But “a lot” is a relative term.

Often it is journalists and librarians that tackle the fake news topic. I think that both of these groups add an important perspective to the conversation but I also think that there is the perspective of a digital citizen and those that advocate for such concepts; the perspective of someone using the web as a place of expression, a place to learn, and to be heard and to listen to others.

What is microtargeting?

When I bring the idea of microtargeting up I’ll start with something like “well you know they track a lot of your data from the internet to try to influence you” and most often, before I can continue, I hear “oh yes of course I know that”. Then there is the inevitable story of shopping for an item on one site and then continuing to see ads for it on other sites. But that is rather mild and not really what concerns me.

I’m not just talking about the machine realizing that you were looking at a product on another site or that you clicked on something from your email, that is cookies and web beacons, that is rudimentary stuff.

I’m talking about gathering thousands of data points, combining them, and analyzing them. Everything from shopping history to facebook likes and what church you attend can be gathered and combined with traditional demographics to create a “personalized experience” meant to influence you with emotional and psychological messaging.

The big story around microtargeting right now has to do with a little company called Cambridge Analytica (CA) in London. They are the big story because they’ve had well known wins with customers like the Brexit Leave and Donald Trump campaigns.  

In this eleven minute video during the Concordia Summit their CEO Alexander Nix explains how they work. In the video Nix explains that demographic and geographic information is child’s play. That the idea of all people from one demographic getting the same message: “all women because of their gender, all African Americans because of their race, all old people because of their age” is ridiculous. That those things are of course important but they are only part of the picture; that psychographics are a much more complete picture because then you are targeting for personality.

The big shocker where people feel a little creeped out is when they learn that CA uses those silly little facebook quizzes (you know the ones that you click the “connect to facebook” button on before you are allowed to take them) to profile your personality. What! Those quizzes are not just there for free for you to have fun with… as they say: if the service is free consider that you might be the product.

As we may forget

CA is not the only one doing this; they are just the popular story right now and the quizzing is only part of things. For me the big part is that connection to facebook which can give the owner of the quiz (be it CA or some other company) access to all of your account information, your likes, your posts, and often much of your friend’s information. Of course, much of your personal and consumer data can be purchased so throw that into the mix. Imagine aligning all of this data for a person. It is a lot. Often people don’t even realize what they are giving away.

You authorize the connection so that you can take the quiz or play the game or whatever and then it is over for you – you have had your fun and you move on. But the app still has that connection to your account and will continue to unless you go in and specifically delete it. This means that it can continue to gather data. Apps will vary of course and I can’t speak for any specific one but I know that all of you are reading the terms of service of each app before you connect it – right?

In this case the user is continuing to make associative trails on facebook through friending and liking. However, they are not using those trails for metacognition. They are not using technology to extend their memory so that they may better reflect on the connections that they are making. Instead they plow forward forgetting many of the connections and the fact that they have authorized someone/thing else access and track their connection trails. The trails are being harvested by an outside entity and the user, more than likely, has no idea who that entity is – did I mention that they could change the terms of service, the name of, or the nature of the app at any moment?

But how much can someone really do with all that data?

I have seen the data scientist folks that I follow sort of look at the CA story a little sideways and it seems every day there is a new article downplaying the impact CA had on the Trump and Brexit campaigns. Interestingly though not too many saying that the idea behind this, using big data and psychographics to personalize experiences, is invalid. Just that CA might be more hype than pay off.

This much more comprehensive story about the origins of CA in Motherboard states that Cambridge is not releasing any empirical evidence on how much or how little they are affecting the outcomes of campaigns. And though CA is more than happy to tout their wins as proof of their effectiveness I’ve yet to see anything about their losses which is a classic vendor ploy.

In this recent Bloomberg article, The Math Babe, Cathy O’Neil points out that what Trump was doing during the campaign is not uncommon and that the Hillary campaign was also doing it. Also, that U.S. companies have for decades been tracking personality. O’Neil points out that “To be sure, there’s plenty to be appalled at in this story…. It is just not specific to Trump”.  She states that Hillary had access to more data than Trump because she had access to Obama’s archive of data from the previous elections. 

But then I think about Bush. As We May Think considers information storage and to be sure the amount of data is important. However, I think the real meat is in the connections. It is here that I have a hunch that having the right context or being able to see the right connections could be more powerful than having more data – well at least if we are talking about the difference between a lot of data and a whole heck of a lot data. Did I mention that I am not a data scientist?

Paul Olivier Dehaye has written about how CA was targeting “low information voters” for the Trump campaign. This article hypothesizes that CA used data (citing CA’s claim to have 5000 data points for every adult American) to specifically look for voters who had a low “need for cognition” for microtarged political advertising. These are the type of folks who would be more likely to not dig too deep or question stories that were presented to them. These folks are not doing a lot of metacognition. I don’t blame them for this, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

What is real and how can we tell?

As I remember it, when the term fake news first started being thrown around during the campaign it was largely being used to define sites that were not run by major news organizations or even particular journalists but rather individuals who knew how to buy a domain name, hosting, and throw up a WordPress site but who were only interested in click revenu. They would come up with crazy stories and even crazier headlines just to get people to click. As these started to be called out as “fake news” some began to create lists of these sites and place parody and satire sites alongside of them.

But then it got more challenging with accusations that major news sources were in fact fake news and that we could tap into “alternative facts” to get to the truth.

Journalists receive training to be sensitive to bias and context and to not let it interfere with their reporting, so they should be more prepared to consider context and fight against bias, especially their own. However, you will never be able to completely remove bias and context; much of it can be hidden and not realized till later. It is here that education is asked to step in and create critical citizens who will hold journalists responsible for what they report and it is here that we see the calls for greater digital and information literacy in regards to fake news.

Fake news, microtargeting, and digital citizenship

Bush envisioned people using technology to extend their memory to be more metacognitive about the connections they were making while they were building knowledge. These seem like rather “high cognition” kind of folks to me but what about those “low cognition” kind of people that Dehaye thinks CA could be after? Who are they?

I mean I’ll admit that I’m guilty myself. I don’t read every terms of service for every new app I download. I have forgotten that I’d given access to some app only later to find it hanging out in my facebook or accessing the geolocation of my phone. But I think that it is really some of the most vulnerable among us that are at risk here.  

What if you work 40/50 hours a week and care for children, parents, or grandparents? What if you have a disability or illness to manage? What if you grew up surrounded by technology and this kind of technology usage is your normal? Do you have time to build all of those literacies? 

Building critical literacies around information and digital technologies takes time. It requires more than just a list of which websites are fake, which are satire, and which are backed by trained journalists. It requires more than a diagram of which news sources lean in which direction politically.

You need the ability to critically look for the nuance of things that could be off. For instance a is different than a .com. Kin Lane talks about “domain literacy” and goes much deeper than this basic understanding of domains but I hope you see what I mean. We need to read the article and then ask is it really reporting first hand or are they reporting on reporting as Mike Caulfield points out when he calls for the first step in fact checking to not be evaluating the source but rather determining who the source is!

Once you determine the true source you need to evaluate it – who wrote this, what are their political leanings, are they being backed by other influences (like money) somewhere? You should click on the article’s links and/or look at its sources and read those articles to get context before you make a definitive decision about it’s worth. All of this takes access, and knowledge, and constant practice.

Maha Bali writes about how fake news is not our real problem. She points out how fake news is good for critical thinking and states that we need more than just a cognitive approach; what we really need is cross-cultural dialog, learning, and skills. This is where education and community need to step up to the plate.

It seems like a lot and for me it is a call for better general and liberal education. I think the first step may just be in realizing (and getting students to realize) that my internet is different from your internet. Where possible, taking ownership for our own “associative trails” and demanding that ownership when it is kept from us. Finally, simply realizing that there are political forces and companies with lots of your data… which has always been the case but maybe realizing that they are trying to influence you in increasingly intimate ways.

This article (images and words) are CC-BY Autumm Caines

When Free Beer Leaves Me Cold: Declaring Interest in #OpenLearning17

I’m super excited that some of my favorite Virginia educators have gotten together to do a cMOOC! #OpenLearning17 started today and I’m so thrilled to follow along and learn with a great community. The syllabus says this week is for introductions, blogs, and working with a connected learning coach.  There is also a great reading all about the meaning of “open” which was enlightening to the history of the word. To this end the article starts with the word “free” as defined by Richard Stallman for the Free Software Definition, distinguishing the difference between “free” as in “free speech” not as in “free beer”. “Free”, in the sense that will eventually grow into “Open”, is focused more on liberation than lack of price. So, besides lacking a price, “free” as defined by Stallman also includes the ability to see and change the program itself – also the ability to redistribute changed versions of the program. It seems to me that in this way the program is used by the person instead of the person being used by the program. It also seems that this encourages community as conversations need to arise around this kind of usage.

I am actually struggling with some “free beer” kind of software (at least I think it is free beer) in my life right now so I thought I’d talk about it as my introduction to the group.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the best at email management. Our institution has a size limit on faculty and staff inboxes that is like 20mb or something. I’m always archiving stuff off because I’m getting yelled at for not having enough space in my mailbox. To make more room one of the first things that I do is sort by size and archive off the messages that are the largest. Usually these are messages that have large attachments.

A few months ago it seemed to really start filling up quick. The thing was I would do my little trick of sorting by size and I started finding these messages from one particular professor that I was working with that had no attachment – often they were just a sentence or two of text. I checked to see if perhaps there was an image in the signature line that was taking up a bunch of room but I didn’t see anything like that. I thought it was a fluke, archived the messages, and moved on.

The thing was it kept happening and it was getting worse. The first few times I found these messages they were maybe 500kb but then after a week I was finding that they were 1mb – then 2mb – and always from the same professor. What was going on?

I’d had enough and I knew there was something that I couldn’t see in the background of those emails. I asked our Instructional Designer Jim Kerr what he thought and we started a back and forth of trying to deduct what was going on. Was it only in replies? Was it every email that professor sent me? It did not seem to be happening when the professor sent from his phone… Well eventually we pulled up the source code for the emails and the cause became abundantly clear – there was about 11,000 lines of junk code in each of those emails. I don’t read or write code but one word was sticking out all over the place; Grammarly.

Grammarly is a piece of “free” software that is supposed to help you write better. In real time it corrects spelling and grammar errors in all of your text. You can install it as browser plug-in so that you don’t even have to go to a website – wherever you write text on the web it is there.

Grammarly says it is the “free grammar checker” but I believe this is free as in beer not free as in speech. I’m new to the open/free movement and new to Grammarly so let me know if I got this wrong. I don’t see anywhere that I can get to their code to tweak it or to see what exactly it is doing or why it is ending up in the background of very simple emails and bloating them up. Any talk of community on their site applies to those looking to talk about grammar issues not to talk about the software, how it functions, or how users can change it directly. Grammarly is free but there is a paid tier and the volume licensing also has a cost associated to it. So, I suppose it is like free cheap beer – if you want the stuff that tastes good you have to pay.

I printed the code that was behind the email just so that I could demonstrate how much was actually going on behind the scenes. Mind you this is double sided.

Printed code behind an email message that was one sentence long. This is double sided.

After going through all of this the professor immediately removed Grammarly from his computer – he said his email box was filling every day and no one could figure out why. But it also got Jim and I thinking about how Grammarly works. It is not entirely on your computer – much of the computing process is in the cloud – it needs the internet to function. So, it seems that it is basically a keylogger. Though it is not covert (I mean you install the thing) it is recording every keystroke and sending it to their servers to check for grammar and spelling issues. It does seem that they are encrypting and such but now we are wondering if there are implications for FERPA in an educational setting. And besides having some program record and send my every keystroke is a little creepy to me. Especially, If I don’t know what is going on in the background.

To be honest, I’m not a coder and even if Grammarly did make their source code available I couldn’t make much of it. I think that there might even be security issues if it were that open. Honestly, a big reason why I’m writing this as a part of my introduction for #OpenLearning17 is because I’m trying to better understand the implications from others that might know better than me. I’m wondering if our concerns about FERPA are warranted and if anyone has any clue how the junk code got into the emails. Any feedback would be great but if not, if this is too far outside the interest of #OpenLearning17, that is okay too. Hoping that this post can still act as a way of saying hi and giving folks some idea of the type of things that I’m thinking about.

Looking forward to working with everyone in #OpenLearning17 and can’t wait to see where this takes us.