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.

5 thoughts on “When Free Beer Leaves Me Cold: Declaring Interest in #OpenLearning17”

  1. Great post. I see Grammarly-branded stuff around (especially their posts on FB) but I had no idea it was “free” bloat-ware of the kind you describe. That print-out picture told quite a story! This is a wonderful response to the “Fifty Shades Of Open” article–right on point. If you can make it to Twitter Journal Club on Friday, one of the authors will be joining us. Should be quite interesting.

    1. Oh I’m so bummed I won’t be able to make that Twitter Journal Club 🙁 meeting that same time to discuss our fake news panel. I’ll see what I can do to chime in afterwards.

      Thanks for the comment Gardner 🙂

  2. Oh my word! That is an unusual situation. I assume my institution is not immune, so I’ll keep this in mind if I start having problems…
    I am no expert on “open” either, and I am a learner on this journey, too, but this seems like a wonderful example of free beer vs. free speech. And perhaps highlights the challenges that can come with the “free beer” or “free puppies” types of free.
    The visual is great, too. I think it’s pretty clear that some code clean up might be necessary for the folks at Grammarly. 🙂

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