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Oops, I forgot to post the notes from my talk in Paris in December when I spoke at API Days. I was the killjoy who said we might want to think not simply about the wonders of technology, but about the cultural and political implications of APIs -- of opening up data. Also, I talked about Clint Eastwood. Don't ask. Just enjoy the slides...

I have a reputation of being someone critical of technology – specifically education technology. So it’s a bit of a challenge to come on stage after the API Evangelist. Yet here I am at a technology conference, weighing how to offer a critique of APIs.

Although it’s not really a critique of APIs per se. After all, technology as we know from Kranzberg’s Law is neither good nor bad nor neutral. APIs aren’t the problem or the solution — they’re a symptom, if you will. They’ll be wielded in the service of power, politics, business, culture.

My goal: to prompt us to ask how our efforts to open APIs, to open data might be harmful not just helpful — particularly in education. Who benefits? And for me, the important question is always "Do students benefit?” Which students? Not hypothetically, not with some speculation about how more technology will necessarily be mo’ better, that it’s necessarily progress. Do our technology efforts recognize students as humans, do they give them agency or do our technologies try to script things to such a degree that we think of students as figures in our algorithms.

How do we evaluate our technologies so that we’re moving forward with ethics and with care and not just profit or “innovation” in mind.

So that’s what I want to talk about, in a nutshell.

But there’s this horrible expectation when you’re a speaker at a conference, that you have to come up with a title in advance. And if you’re like me and wait until the last possible minute to prepare your talk, coming up with a title requires a commitment and forethought that you’re not always ready to make.

So I struggled to find a title for this talk when Mehdi emailed me last week with a friendly reminder that I really really needed to give him one. After all, this is the first time I’ve given a talk at a specifically technical event. It’s the first time I’ve given a talk in a country where the language is not English. And so I wanted to be conscientious of how phrases don’t often translate well, and so I started googling and google-translating various catchy phrases that encapsulated this notion of APIs and education being at best a mixed bag.

I don’t know why, really. I went with a Sergio Leone reference — a Western shot in Italy and Spain by an Italian director, with the main actors speaking their lines in English who were then dubbed into Italian for the film’s initial release and when the film was released in the US, the supporting cast dubbed into English.

But then last night, as I was starting to seriously think through what exactly I wanted to say, what I wanted to put in my slides, I got completely sidetracked.

Is it possible, I wondered, to frame a whole talk around Clint Eastwood? Could I find enough images from his epic film career? I mean, he’s been in over 50 movies, directed over 30.

And so I found myself last night exploring the Eastwood filmography, wondering if I could make my argument based on titles, characters, and quotations.

At first, it seemed doable…

A fistful of dollars — the first film in the trilogy that ended with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. “A fistful of dollars,” which nicely encapsulates, I think, the current atmosphere surrounding the funding of ed-tech startups, which has more than tripled in the last decade.

I could refer to Gran Torino, where Eastwood plays a grumpy old man that’s a little bit his character in the Sergio Leone films and a little bit Dirty Harry. The “get off my lawn” scene could capture nicely the response of the incumbent players in the education technology industry — companies like Pearson and Blackboard, for example – to the new upstarts. Or it could capture the response from those educators who believe that technology isn’t necessary or welcome in their classrooms.

I could refer to Clint Eastwood’s horrifyingly hilarious appearance at the 2012 Republican Convention, where he ad-libbed a make-believe conversation with Obama… with an empty chair. A metaphor perhaps for empty promises, wacky ideas, or aging education technology, embarrassingly out-of-date.

Apparently one of Mitt Romney’s aides actually threw up after watching Eastwood’s talk at the convention. And the response “I’m going to puke” is often one I have to some of the news I read about education technology, particularly news I read in Techcrunch.

Any Which Way You Can, sequel to Every Which Way But Loose — such under-appreciated Eastwood classics. So many possibilities here: who’s the fist-fighting hero? Who’s the orangutan? Here, I could talk about how often I get into fights on the Internet when I dare suggest something like “your learn to code startup sucks."

I’d be remiss, of course, to not reference Dirty Harry.

But at some point, around 11pm last night, I realized that “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Can I fill a half hour talk with Clint Eastwood references?"

No.

Perhaps I can invoke other directors, other films? But would this trek down Hollywood-memory lane run the risk, again, of a failure in translation. The difference, if you will, between a “Quarter Pounder“ and a ”Royale with Cheese."

So scrap the movie reference idea: like I said at the beginning of this talk, I want raise questions about ethics, agency, privacy, ownership of data. It’s easy to assert that education technologies must have an API. It’s more challenging to think through the implications of such a move.

So a personal anecdote: a couple of years ago, my mum gave me a large manilla envelope full of my old schoolwork — drawings and writings and photos from as far back as preschool — some projects I remembered making, many I didn’t, including this wonderful portrait I drew of some figure from the Wild West. Mostly the envelope contained administrative records — my report cards, various certificates of accomplishment, some ribbons.

That envelope was obviously a low-tech way to collect my school records. It is certainly my mother’s curation of “what counts” as my education data – as such, a reflection of proud parenting and of schooling in a pre-digital age, I suppose. Nonetheless I think the manilla envelope makes for an interesting metaphor — probably a better one than Clint Eastwood — a model to think about storing education data, one with strengths and weaknesses and strange relevancies for our thinking about the digital documentation and storage of education data today.

What happens now that our schoolwork is increasingly “born digital”? Is there a virtualized equivalent to my mum’s envelope?

Or — and this is what I often fear — are we creating education-related content in apps, on websites, in learning management systems that we will only have temporary access to?

Once we put our content in, can we get our content out again — and out in a format that’s actually readable, by humans and by machines? This is one of the promises of APIs, of course. But that promise isn’t always fulfilled — not in a meaningful way, not in a way that gives students control — a reflection, no doubt, of students’ powerlessness within the institution of school.

Another anecdote: last summer, I met a young girl whose school was piloting a one-to-one iPad program. This girl’s family weren’t particularly tech-oriented. They didn’t have a computer at home. So when the school offered them, at the beginning of the year, a chance to buy the iPad, they declined. It was expensive. They didn’t see the point. But by the end of the school year, their minds had changed — one of those stories that sounds at first glance like a PR win for Apple — the device was easy to use, the girl loved it, she’d downloaded some other apps, she’d created a lot of drawings and written a lot of stories with it. And so the family approached the school about buying the iPad. But it was too late, the school said. The purchasing offer was only available at the beginning of the year. And the iPad was returned — with all this girl’s data on it. There was no manilla envelope — physical or digital — for much of her 6th grade schoolwork.

The family had no home iTunes account with which to sync the student’s data — that’s what you’re “supposed” to do to get your data off an iPad. But even more troubling, schools tend to create “dummy” accounts for these devices. So even if you did have your own iTunes account at home, it wouldn’t matter. Your school device is registered to [email protected]

So as awesome as some folks think iPads are — and I get it. It’s a slick device. I’m presenting from one today — we need to think about whether that’s the place we want to store all our data — all our kids’ data.

This isn’t just about Apple, of course. We must ask: Is there a safe digital place – any safe place– where we can store our school work and our school records — not just for the duration of a course or for the length of school year, but for “posterity”?

“Posterity” — why, that word sounds a lot like “Posterous,” doesn’t it. “Posterous” — the microblogging platform that was acquired by Twitter last year and shut down at the end of April. Posterous — a free tool that many students and educators and librarians (among others) were using for sharing and storing writing, photos, video, and other digital content.

The closure of Posterous is hardly the first or the only time something like this has happened to a tool — free or paid – that’s been popular for educational purposes. Heck, we often demand students put their school work into a learning management system where they lose access to it at the end of the semester. And for that pleasure, schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So a shout-out here to the University of Mary Washington and its “Domain of One’s Own” initiative that gives domains, Web hosting, and technical training to faculty and students. As the name of the initiative suggests, students own their space on the Web. They own their own domain. They control it as students, they’re encouraged to use it as an electronic portfolio, and here’s the crucial point — they can take it with them when they graduate.

The demise of Posterous — or any number of startups that hit the deadpool this year — should prompt us to ask — yet again: Are we storing our digital education content in a place that we actually control, that we actually own?

Do we — can we — own our education data? Whose data is it — whose learning is it?

While my manilla envelope might appear to offer better control over my educational content — hooray for the analog! — that’s not necessarily the case.

The papers that I have in my possession are, in many instances, just a transcript. A copy. My schools retain the originals. Or I guess they do. Some of these report cards are decades old. Regardless — anyone who’s had to send money to their alma mater in order to request an official copy of their transcript has probably cursed this particular arrangement. “I earned those grades, dammit.” Give me my data — and not as a PDF.

The school retains my data, although according to FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the law that in the U.S. governs the privacy of educational records) that data is mine to review and correct. And according to FERPA, I have some say over who it’s shared with. As do, my parents, until I turn 18.

But despite its claims to protect the privacy of students’ records, nowhere does FERPA say that a student actually “owns” her or his data. Nowhere does it say that a school does either. At best, it would seem, the education institution is a steward for the “official education record” — responsible for its storage, its security, and its protection. And truth be told, the terms of “ownership” are mostly spelled out between individual schools and the databases and software they buy or license.

So let’s push this question further: what data exactly are schools and other education-related institutions stewards for? Just what’s on the transcript — that is, dates of attendance, major, and final course grades?

What about behavior records? Test scores? Individual assignments?

What about all the data that is being collected on and generated by students?

What about students’ search engine history? Learning management system log-ins and duration of their LMS sessions? Blog and forum comment history? Internet usage while on campus? Emails sent and received? Social media profiles? Pages read in digital textbooks? Videos watched on Coursera or Khan Academy, along with if and where they paused it? Exercises completed on these platforms? Keystrokes and mouse clicks logged?

(That last item is, along with biometric data, how Coursera says it plans to confirm students’ identities.)

Do students own this data? Do they control any of it? Can they access it? Download it? Review it?

And here’s a very important question: Are students even aware that this data is being collected?

And: Are they asked for their consent before it’s shared?

You see, simply having an API doesn’t address any of these issues. In fact, having an API can create more problems as data flows between platform and app provider, for example, with data — and perhaps value — extracted from the student along the way. These problems aren’t as apparent in the manilla envelope my mom gave me, quite obviously. The envelope was really about preservation and nostalgia — good memories and bad memories and forgotten memories from my schooling, and I was grateful that my mum had saved all that paper, even though it was decidedly her record of me — the items that she had chosen to save for me.

And when we talk about protecting and preserving students’ educational content — making sure that it doesn’t disappear like all those Posterous blogs did — I think much of our concern is about maintaining that record for the future. Collection for the sake of recollection.

But we’re also talking more and more about collecting data in order to analyze it.

What insights could I glean about myself as a learner from the contents of my manilla envelope — things unknown and unreflected upon, pulled out of the forgotten drawings and scribbled passions of my childhood?

And how might those insights have differed if I was able to review this education data on a real-time and ongoing basis, not just 20-some-odd years later?

The ability to glean insights — in real-time or near-real-time — from students’ data is the cornerstone of the emerging field of learning analytics. And while there are certainly many obstacles to making use of the data that schools already collect about students — thanks to the lack of APIs no doubt, thanks to information silos that are both technological and departmental and political — the drive for better learning analytics will make students’ data of increasing importance for all manner of education institutions.

So again, I ask, who owns our education data?

You know the saying “if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” It’s often applied to free tools like Twitter and Google that use your personal data to sell advertising. But with our increasingly data-oriented world, we might have to admit that even if you are paying for the product, you’re still the product. Your data certainly is.

Companies that have long gathered data about all our transactions and demographics are starting to sift through all that data — in order to improve the product, in order to improve the marketing, in order to beat their competition. There’s a sense — and the metaphor here is pretty horrible if you stop to think about it — that data is the new “oil” and our lives are set to be mined with the value extracted from them. How can we make sure that value stays with us?

When I asked recently on Twitter “who owns your education data?” one of the responses was “it doesn’t matter.” The data “has no value except to those who take positive steps to use it.” Framed this way, it doesn’t matter if a student or a school or a software provider or a governmental agency owns the data, as long as its usage is beneficial. Certainly this is the promise of learning analytics: to enhance student outcomes, to boost student retention, and to increase course completion.

Now I won’t argue that these aren’t “positive” uses for students, nor that students don’t want these things for themselves.

But if students do not own and do not control their data, then I fear (again) that data and analytics will be something we do to students, rather than do for them or do with them. Or — and here’s a radical notion — that we enable students to do for themselves.

If we are to build, then, a virtual version of my mum’s manilla envelope — in the service of not just long-term personal content storage but real-time personal learning analytics — it would demand that many things change in how we think about education data today. Again, it isn’t simply about adding APIs to existing technologies or existing practices.

As it stands, the benefit of much of the data being collected goes to the school or the software provider, but strangely not to the person who created it — to the learner.

And it is, after all, their data, their content, their learning, their data — even if our technologies, our policies, our laws don’t fully recognize it as such. Yet. Culture does change.

As we press forward with new technologies, as we open APIs and data to new software and systems, how do we do so with “the good” in mind — and not just the good for engineers or entrepreneurs. But the good for users — and “good” as they define it. Not simply “good” as defined by powerful institutions like schools or Silicon Valley or Hollywood. Because on close inspection, these often support practices that veer towards the bad and the ugly.

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Audrey Watters


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