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Here are the notes and slides from my keynote today at the Alberta Digital Learning Forum. The idea behind the forum: to imagine what education will look like in the province in 2030.

I tried not to go full dystopia. I really did. As I started to pull together my talk, it was clear that all the traveling and speaking and listening and learning I've been doing over the last month has shaped my thinking. So thanks to Jim Groom and Brian Lamb and Jon Udell in particular. This talk borrows heavily from your work.


I. dystopian futures

Thank you very much for inviting me here to talk to you about the future of digital learning in Alberta — it is an honor and, I admit, a surprise.

See, I’m known for delivering less-than-optimistic assessments about the state of education technology today and for offering caution about the direction in which I see ed-tech heading. Someone once called me “education’s Kassandra,” or at least I fear the predictions about the future of education and I often think “how utterly dystopian!": that in 50 years time we’ll only have 10 universities left in the world; that in 15 years time half of the universities (in the US at least) will be bankrupt; that before the end of the century, 70% of today’s occupations will be replaced by automation, including the work of librarians and teaching assistants; that public support for education is gone; that precarity and austerity will be the new normal.

As such, I find it challenging to look too positively at the “disruptive innovation” that technology is supposed to enable, in part because I worry about growing inequalities — inequalities, along with other problems, that can never really be resolved with an app or a tablet but that require instead a deeper commitment to democracy. 

This is, of course, why education matters so profoundly.

So I’ve come lately to cite Antonio Gramsci: "I am a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

But I’m going to will myself to craft a story for you today about education in 2030 that resists that dystopian narrative. I want to project a story for the future where learning technologies support and foster learner control and learner agency. It’s a story where students are the subjects not objects when it comes to education and education technology.

It’s actually a story we could tell starting today. We have the technology to do so. It is the will that we lack.

II. the manilla envelope

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; many I didn’t. Much of the envelope’s contents were administrative records — my report cards, various certificates of accomplishment, some ribbons. 

That envelope was obviously a low-tech way to collect my school records. One envelope clearly couldn’t contain everything I did or everything I made or everything I wrote or everything I learned. It was certainly my mother’s curation of “what counts” as my education data — a reflection of proud parenting and of schooling in a pre-digital age. 

Nevertheless I think the manilla envelope is an interesting and an important model — a model with strengths and weaknesses and strange relevancies for us to think about the digital documentation and storage and sharing of education data today.

What happens now that our schoolwork is increasingly “born digital”? What happens to our learning record now that we’re recognizing more and more that learning happens beyond the classroom walls, beyond the years of formal schooling? 

Is there a virtualized equivalent to my mum’s envelope?  (No. There is not.)

But let's imagine. What would or could a virtual manilla envelope contain? Grades? Test scores? Attendance records? The pictures a learner has drawn? The poems and essays and book reports she’s written? Every assignment she's ever completed — after all, digital storage is so cheap these days. Why not keep everything? A list of every book checked out from the library. Metadata from every educational video watched — all the pauses, rewinds, fast forwards. All that data that we create these days thanks to computer technologies. Every single mouse click on every single piece of software.

"By collecting every click, homework submission, quiz and forum note from tens of thousands of students” — this is how Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller's TED Talk is described — MOOCs have become "a data mine that offers a new way to study learning.”

But do students own their own data? Can they study it? Can they control who it’s shared with? Can they export it from Coursera into their own “manilla envelope”? As it currently stands — in Coursera as in almost all educational software, no. It’s really not your data. You can’t get it out. 

There is no manilla envelope.

III. metaphors matter

OK, I lied. A quick foray into the darker, dystopian side of education data:

Now although I write about education and technology for a living, my formal academic training is in neither area. I'm a literature and language person, and so when I hear MOOCs described as a "data mine," my first thoughts aren't about mathematical models. I think about metaphor. I think about cultural history.

The phrase "data-mining" is quite new — less than 25 or so years old. But prior to that, in the 1960s, statisticians referred to the pouring through data without an a-priori hypothesis as "data-dredging," a practice that carried a negative connotation.

In that same period, the public grew more and more concerned about data collection and its potential misuse, particularly with regards to violations of privacy. Indeed, as banking, healthcare, and government services were becoming increasingly computerized, the 1960s and 1970s saw the passing of several laws — many still on the books — addressing the collection, storage, and sale of people's personal data. This includes in the United States FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the law that governs the privacy of students' education records.

Data-dredging. Data-mining. Technological processes, sure, but political processes too. And really interesting metaphors.

Dredging data conjures up the image of searching through a large, fluid pool of information. Dredging up information from the bottom, information that's been buried, that's otherwise inaccessible. And, to press the metaphor: dredging in the physical world is largely recognized to disturb the ecosystem and to leave behind toxic chemicals.

Mining data might suggest a more targeted resource extraction than dredging data. It certainly suggests a more lucrative one. But we don’t always talk about the potential toxic results.

"Data is the new oil," headlines proclaim.  “Data is just like crude," says the market analyst. "It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc., to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value.”

"Data is the new oil," says the investor, urging startups to locate and mine resources currently untapped.

"Data is the new oil," says The World Economic Forum. "In practical terms, a person’s data could be equivalent to their ‘money'".

I am not sure how much these natural resource extraction metaphors resonate here in Alberta. They resonate for me. See, I was born in Wyoming, where the mining industry drives the economy. I understand first hand the cycles of boom and bust. But Wyoming incidentally is also the site of the Teapot Dome scandal, which before Watergate, was the biggest scandal in the history of the US government. In case this episode wasn’t covered in Alberta textbooks: The Teapot Dome Scandal occurred in the 1920s when the Warren G. Harding administration gave private companies opportunities to mine public lands in Wyoming without going through the proper bidding process.

So when I hear "data is the new oil," I think about this language, this history, the sorts of relationships that have long been forged between government and corporate entities. Public resource, private profits. And what that means for prosperity, for growth, for sustainability.

I get it: to call data "the new oil" is particularly resonant in our energy-hungry and fossil-fuel reliant economy. And for what it's worth, some data scientists have pushed back on the "oil” metaphor. Jer Thorp, an educator and the former data artist in residence at The New York Times has argued that the "data is the new oil” metaphor, when wielded uncritically, is deeply flawed. Data isn't something that lies beneath the surface, just waiting to be extracted. Thorp writes — and apologies for quoting him at length here — that,

"Perhaps the “data as oil” idea can foster some much-needed criticality. Our experience with oil has been fraught; fortunes made have been balanced with dwindling resources, bloody mercenary conflicts, and a terrifying climate crisis. If we are indeed making the first steps into economic terrain that will be as transformative (and possibly as risky) as that of the petroleum industry, foresight will be key. We have already seen “data spills” happen (when large amounts of personal data are inadvertently leaked). Will it be much longer until we see dangerous data drilling practices? Or until we start to see long term effects from “data pollution”?

One of the places where we’ll have to tread most carefully... is in the realm of personal data. A great deal of the profit that is being made right now in the data world is being made through the use of human-generated information. Our browsing habits, our conversations with friends, our movements and location — all of these things are being monetized. This is deeply human data, though very often it is not treated as such. Here, perhaps we can invoke a comparison to fossil fuel in a useful way: where oil is composed of the compressed bodies of long-dead micro-organisms, this personal data is made from the compressed fragments of our personal lives. It is a dense condensate of our human experience."

If we are to embrace the "the new oil" metaphor, Thorp insists that we do so critically and ethically, thinking through all the implications, and not merely those implications that have the "mining" executives rubbing their hands together in glee, promising the innovations while anticipating the profits.

What does it mean to talk about student data using this metaphor — “the new oil”? The promised innovation in this case: if we can just mine enough student data, we will uncover the secret about how best to teach and learn. Again, how does this metaphor color the way we build technologies, devise policies? 

Would we talk about student data this same way, would we feel entitled to access and analyze student data the same way if we thought of it more like that manilla envelope?

To tell a more brighter story about the future of ed-tech, I do think we will need to talk about student data in a different way, with different metaphors and with a different politic. I want to encourage the building of technologies that see students’ lives and learning not as a resource to be extracted but as something they themselves can control and cultivate.

IV. “hosted lifebits”

But to gesture to the future, I want to turn to the past: to 7 years ago when Jon Udell, a Microsoft researcher who's long explored how non-engineers can use Internet technologies in new and empowering ways, began arguing for something he called “hosted lifebits” — a way for us to consolidate and control our own data in our own repositories. Manilla envelopes, perhaps, but Internet-enabled.

“Lifebits” — that word is really powerful, I think, and it helps us recognize that all this data we’re creating — intentionally and unintentionally — is us. Bits and bytes of data, sure, but bits and pieces of our lives. Mining that sounds less appealing, I’d argue, than simply mining “data.”

The “lifebits” idea actually comes from another Microsoft researcher, Gordon Bell, who undertook a project to build a personal archive of all the digital assets related to his life, and going forward, to capture, in close to real time, all the digitalia he created. 

For Udell, adding the adjective “hosted” to Bell's concept means that a repository of “lifebits” would be stored in the cloud where it could interact with other repositories and other people.

Udell wrote in a blog post in 2007:

Today my digital assets are spread out all over the place. Some are on various websites that I control, and a lot more that I don’t. Others are on various local hard disks that I control, and a lot more that I don’t. It’s become really clear to me that I’d be willing to pay for the service of consolidating all this stuff, syndicating it to wherever it’s needed, and guaranteeing its availability throughout — and indeed beyond — my lifetime.

The scenario, as I’ve been painting it in conversations with friends and associates, begins at childbirth. In addition to a social security number, everyone gets a handle to a chunk of managed storage. How that’s coordinated by public- and private-sector entities is an open question, but here’s how it plays out from the individual’s point of view.

Udell then imagines what it might mean to collect all of one’s important data from grade school, high school, college and work — to have the ability to turn this into a portfolio — for posterity, for personal reflection, and for professional display on the Web. 

Grade 3

Your teacher assigns a report that will be published in your e-portfolio, which is a website managed by the school. Your parents tell you to write the report, and publish it into your space. Then they release it to the school’s content management system. A couple of years later the school switches to a new system and breaks all the old URLs. But the original version remains accessible throughout your parents’ lives, and yours, and even your kids’.

Grade 8

On the class trip to Washington, DC, you take a batch of digital photos. You want to share them on MySpace, so you do, but not directly, because MySpace isn’t really your space. So you upload the photos to the place that really is your space, where they’ll be permanently and reliably available, then you syndicate them into MySpace for the social effects that happen there.

Grade 11

You’re applying to colleges. You publish your essay into your space, then syndicate it to the common application service. The essay points to supporting evidence — your e-portfolio, recommendations — which are also ... permanently recorded in your space.

And so on...

“Hosted lifebits.” The idea, again, is that we each would have the ability — at the very least access to the technology or to a service — to maintain our own data repository for ourselves but also for our offspring. Parents would manage their children’s repositories and then hand the keys over to them when they’re grown; adults in turn would manage their repositories and then hand them over to their children or perhaps will them to an archive or institution when they die. 

The links to the lifebits don’t rot; the data doesn’t disappear.

If your education-related lifebits are in your own repository, you are able to audit your education record — to correct incorrect data, to run your own analyses of the things that are meaningful to you as a learner.

You have the ability to control who has access to your lifebits — this is absolutely crucial. With lifebits, you opt in, rather than as now, where we have to opt out of analytics and algorithms. You can decide what is shared publicly or shared privately or what is not shared at all.

You have the technology to help you remember. You retain the ability — and the right — to delete, to forget.

"The technical aspects are somewhat challenging,” Udell wrote in 2007, "but the social and business aspects are even more challenging.”

V. a domain of one’s own

Today, the technical aspects are somewhat less challenging. There are ways to get data in and out of software, although many continue to make it incredibly difficult to do so. There’s still a lack of interoperability. There are still proprietary formats. But it is technically feasible to create systems where our data is distributed across our own repositories, rather than centralized into various applications.

The obstacles, as Udell rightly noted, remain the business models that — particularly in educational software — compel companies to collect and retain data in a silo. In their silo. There they can mine student data — often selling the insights they can glean back to schools. 

The obstacles to “hosted lifebits" stem too from the cultural expectations that schools have for software — software often designed to the meet the needs of administrators rather than learners or their parents.

These technological silos work too because we still view each classroom as a closed entity, because we view each subject or discipline as atomistic and distinct. Closed. Centralized. Control in the hands of administrators, teachers, IT but rarely in the hands of learners.

As such it's no surprise that the learning management system has dominated ed-tech for the last 20+ years — again, the words we use here matter: “learning” “management” “system." The LMS has profoundly shaped how schools interact with the Internet, I’d argue. The LMS is a piece of administrative software that pretends to address questions about teaching and learning — often circumscribing pedagogical possibilities, quite frankly. The LMS works as an Internet portal to the student information system, and much like the old portals of the AOL era, cautions you when you try to venture outside of it. You can access the LMS through your web browser but it is not "of" the web.

And at the end of each semester or school year — typically — the student loses access to their course materials — to the syllabus, the readings, the quizzes, the discussion posts. There is no way — typically — for students to export all their data.

There is no manilla envelope.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

One alternative path is being forged by a small team at the the liberal arts college University of Mary Washington, which offers what I think is one the most innovative ed-tech initiatives:

A Domain of One’s Own

Students and faculty at the University of Mary Washington get their own domain. It isn’t simply webspace on the university servers, a dot edu with a slash tilde namespace. The Domain of One’s Own initiative gives students and faculty their own URL: www dot whomever they might be or want to be dot com. The university pays for the domain registration and the hosting while the students are enrolled, and when they graduate, the domain and the data goes with them. It's theirs.

Their own domain. Again, the word matters here. Students have their own space on the web. A space for a blog or multiple blogs. A digital portfolio for their academic work that can become a professional portfolio as well. A place to store their digital stuff in the cloud.

Moreover, a lesson on the technologies that underpin the Web. HTML. CSS. RSS.

It’s not quite “hosted lifebits,” but it’s a solid step in that direction. The initiative represents a kind of open learning — learning on the Web and with the Web, learning that is of the Web. "Domain of One’s Own" offers a resistance to the silos of the learning management system and to the student as a data mine. It highlights the importance of learner agency, of learning in public, of learning together, of control over one’s digital identity and over one’s educational data, and the increasing importance of digital literacies.

VI. ed-tech as a reclamation project

I think one of the most powerful learning technologies humans have ever created is the World Wide Web. Its power doesn’t lie simply in all the “content.” We get too distracted by that. The power of the Web lies in the human connections, in our intellectual and social networks. That schools block the Web and filter the Web and discourage its usage is a terrible shame. That schools fail to help students learn about how the Web works and how they will likely form and perform some digital identity there is a terrible missed opportunity.

Wired Magazine tried to argue back in 2010, “The Web is Dead.” "As much as we love the open, unfettered Web,” wrote then editor Chris Anderson, "we’re abandoning it for simpler, sleeker services that just work. ...Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display.”

But reports of the Web’s death, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated. Indeed, despite the interests of many technology companies in funneling our activities into applications that are closed off from the Web — without URLs, without syndication, without data portability, often without privacy protections where all our activities are set to be data-mined — the Web remains. It remains a site of great hope and great promise. It remains easily readable, writable, and hackable. And despite the efforts of the Facebooks and the Blackboards of the world, there’s a push for a return to the Web, the indie Web, many of us fell in love with when we first dialed up to it, when we first escaped AOL.

Today the content we create — we all create, but particularly learners create — is important, even critical I’d suggest to the development of our identities, the protection of our well-being. It is not secure in the hands of startups or big corporations — these companies go away. It is not secure in the hands of schools. Schools are not in the business of long term data storage, and they increasingly outsource their IT to those very startups and big corporations. We must become the holders of our own data, but not so that we bury all of it away from view. We will want to share it with others on our own terms.

We can reclaim the Web and more broadly ed-tech for teaching and learning. But we must reclaim control of the data, content, and knowledge we create. We are not resources to be mined. Learners do not enter our schools and in our libraries to become products for the textbook industry and the testing industry and the technology industry and the ed-tech industry to profit from. 

Ed-tech must be not become an extraction effort, and it increasingly is. The future, I think we'll find, will be a reclamation project. Let’s start now to take it back.

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Audrey Watters


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