Openness in a surveillance society

I have been so critical of Learning Management Systems for the past ten years that people write to me asking what I use instead of an LMS, even though I usually use Moodle and blog about it. I have written articles on how the LMS determines pedagogy, and spent much time helping faculty put their pedagogy before the demands of such systems. I have been a huge promoter of using Web 2.0 tools for teaching. I just want to set up my credentials here to preface my concerns about using what used to be these more “open” methods.

In May of last year, I indicated reservations about the way things have gone in terms of openness. In this post, I was wary of closed/open spaces like Google and Facebook, where students could be exploited.  In June I indicated I wouldn’t switch from the anonymous Google Talkback to something my students had to sign up with Google for. That was before the recent public understanding of our surveillance society, brought home by the revelations of Edward Snowden. His work seemed to mark an endpoint that originated with Sun Microsystem’s Scott McNealy’s famous quotation from 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

My concerns mean I have agonized over terms of service, along similar lines of Royan Lee, whose excellent blog post inspired this one. . Lee writes, in noting the mainstream acceptance of Google for education despite its Terms of Service.

“Suddenly, the amazing qualities of something like Google Apps for Education seems a little more about efficiency and logistics and less about transformation to me as an educator.”

Whenever I ask students to get a free account to do a Glogster or Slideshare, or open a group for them in Facebook, I think about these things.

There is a Google Community called Using Google Apps as a Free LMS, so I posted a link to Lee’s post there and got an excellent question in response:

questiongooglelms

My response indicates how this is coming together for me.

I would never be one to defend a commercial LMS as a better system. But it is closed in the sense that under normal conditions only the institution has access to the student input. And thinking about it more broadly, student input in the LMS is usually very focused on the course (this depends on pedagogy, of course – some students may indeed post highly personal information in the LMS). Using Google or any open-to-the-web service for classes connects the students’ personal use of that system to their coursework, widening the surveillance opportunities. Same thing with using Facebook. I’ve leaned toward my own hosted WordPress as a more balanced option, but certainly the functionality is not up to the ease of use as Google. My concern is just that the ease comes at a price.

This presents some confusion about open and closed, and what they mean in a surveillance society.

“Open” can mean available to anyone on the web without a password. But it can also mean accessible to ISPs, government surveillance, and commercial data collection. I don’t think we can ignore that anymore, even as we promote open education (I do!) and sharing (yes again!).

It means that a system like Google or Facebook can be “open” in the sense of available to surveillance, and “closed” in the sense of having to sign in and participate in places within the system that are supposedly “closed off” to other areas of the same system (like Google Communities, Google Circles, Google Apps for Education, Facebook Groups). Such areas are deceptive – they imply privacy that does not exist, even as Google and Facebook change their policies to expose more and more of these closed places to the public (for example, Facebook group posts showing up on your timeline) and to their own commercial data collection.

Very few people understand this. They think signing in and turning off Facebook settings and keeping our Circles of people separate implies some privacy. The purpose of signing in is not to protect your privacy. It’s to enable tracking and consolidation and data collection. And while I admire Royan Lee’s goal in spending a lot of time teaching his students about Terms of Service, I need to teach them History. I cannot save my students from the insatiable hunger of Big Data.

Lee is right in corresponding a society that accepts ongoing surveillance by the government with our acceptance of the terms required by web services. They are very similar. It is said that we accept surveillance because we believe if people aren’t doing anything wrong, what’s the harm? We extend this simplistic thinking to our web participation, if we think about it at all.

The solutions seem to be narrowing, to self-hosted LMS options like WordPress or Moodle or one of the newer open-source options. Even then, if you are logged in to Google and use Chrome, for example, your work in other systems can be tracked and (I assume in paranoid moments) recorded.

The closed LMS unfortunately is likely to be safer in a world that doesn’t understand what’s happening. It’s just that wasn’t the world in which I wanted to work.