Image courtesy of r2hox
I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not think there is some global coverup or that the sky is falling and no one knows it, but there is one area in which I do think we need to be more careful; that is the area of personal data. This is a contentious issue and one that needs to be addressed in the classroom. Before I begin giving my reasons why, let me set the scene first.
I am an avid user of cloud-based services. I have used so many different platforms and tools that store my data on online servers that I can’t even keep track of them all. Even this post was written using OneNote and synced with my other devices using OneDrive and then was uploaded to WordPress.com and shared via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites. If you search for me online, you will certainly find me in all sorts of places. You could probably get a good deal of information about me without even trying very hard.
Some may find that scary, but I have weighed the benefits and the potential losses and have decided for myself that this is the price I am willing to pay for the use of these services. I have been using online tools even before the advent of the internet as we know it now. I used to be a part of a BBS (bulletin board system) using my dial-up service on my 2400 baud modem. Even then, I was aware that some of my personal data was being shared with complete strangers and that was okay with me.
If that is the case, why am I such a staunch advocate for registration-free online tools? That’s simple; it’s not my data that is being shared. No matter what level of security the system I am using has or the steps I take to ensure that as many loopholes are closed as are possible, there is always a way someone could get that information if they really wanted to. I am always surprised by people who think that just because a service is large and well known they are safe from their data being shared with others. Even Google, Apple, Facebook, and pretty much any other service has been vulnerable at one time or another to hackers. Even if they aren’t, that data is being shared within AND outside of their services. Again, I am not some stirring up some conspiracy plot here, this is simply a cold, hard fact.
Now, after saying all of that, the chances of my data being exploited for nefarious reasons is very remote. For those who are scared of using their credit card online simply haven’t considered the fact that their credit card information is still being sent electronically when they purchase something in a store. Even before that, I used to work in retail and we had slips of paper all over the place with customer’s credit card information imprinted right on it. Anyone in the store, or someone breaking into the store, could have taken that information and used it without much trouble. The only thing that has changed is that you are the sender of that information instead of the store. That means you are responsible for who handles that information.
Data has become a huge business for these companies. Everything we do electronically can, and probably is, being stored and used to help other businesses. Loyalty cards, online tools, credit and bank cards, and on and on and on all collect data and attempt to make connections to other data to help develop targeted marketing. Again, this can often be helpful such as in the case of stores bringing in more products that suit their target market. You may even receive coupons or discounts specifically targeted to what they know to be your personal needs or tastes. My data is of value to a company, a form of commodity that I am choosing to spend wherever and whenever I choose.
My problem with using online tools in the classroom is when student personal data is being given over without much thought as to the potential power issues at stake. Like it or not, we as teachers have been given a certain amount of power by our students and other stakeholders such as parents and the general public. Even if we try to eliminate it, some will continue to see it that way due to the stakes, such as marks and grades. As long as teachers are in control of the outcome, there will be a power separation between themselves and the student. Therefore, even asking a student to register becomes a force of power. Students who do not feel like they would like to participate will often not say anything due to the potential of a power conflict. Even if we say, “Those who don’t want to sign-up can talk to me about other options,” students will often take the path of least resistance due to the potential of future issues. Also, students do not want to be the one seen as being different or a problem, even with other students, and will simply go with the majority.
Students own their data and should not be forced to turn over this valuable commodity for the sake of what the teacher feels is best, especially when there are often plenty of other ways of handling this. There are so many tools that do not require registration on the part of the student and I feel that some teachers simply are doing what is best for themselves without taking the student needs and this idea of data commodification into account. Don’t think for a minute that I am fighting against educational technology since I am actually an advocate for whatever helps students make the most of their learning experience and take control of their own learning, but I do believe we need to be careful with how we handle this issue of privacy and data.
Wherever you find yourself in the world, you likely have to navigate a series of privacy laws. In the part of Canada where I live, there are some pretty strict laws regarding the sharing of personal data online. For public institutions such as where I work, we cannot store identifiable information on cloud servers hosted in the United States due to the Patriot Act. It may seem absurd to be so concerned about a US law with Canada, but since the information crosses borders almost undetected (at least to the user), we need to be conscious of what and even where our data is being shared.
So what should you do? First off, you should become aware of the privacy laws in force where you live. Secondly, try to find tools that don’t require the sharing of personal data such as email addresses and full names. Lastly, talk about this with your students. They need to be aware of the value of their data and the potential usages of it by companies.