#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:

At ELI

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.

3 thoughts on “#DigCiz Week 4 – Big Data Big Dreams: waking up about data collection in edtech”

  1. The idea of being geographically tracked (and therefore, no doubt, having that data sold to vendors) makes me wonder: who the #$%^& do they think they are? Right? I am not my data. I am me. You are you, not your data. Audrey is right, of course, about the dangers of all this data collection, and the rather slow stepping into the puddle that becomes a river that becomes the ocean, and then you are lost at sea with the only lifeboat in view the one owned by those who have amassed your data in the first place. Breaking free from this madness — does it require a thread analysis, as Bill suggests? — is something we all need to grapple with, and the sad thing is: most of us here in this conversation understand this is going on, and still, we struggle. Others don’t even realize it. Great post. Appreciate the critical lens.
    Kevin
    PS — At NCTE, we often Hack the Conference by grabbing shwag and material from vendors and remixing them into critical public art against the commercialization of the event. Small stuff, perhaps, but it often feels like a public push to rise awareness.

    1. Hey Kevin,

      Thanks for coming by – I always appreciate your thoughts. I do think that we have to be careful with saying that we are not our data. I know it feels like some external force is making judgements about us based on something that is outside of us. But I think we have to feel some ownership to realize the egregiousness of what is being taken.

      Making critical public art out of the commercialized schwag!!! Oh my god I love that idea!!! At the last several conferences I’ve attended I’ve called for more #ArtInEdTech

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