Standing up for students privacy an #etug Gasta story

4 min read

One of the things I brought back with me from last years ALT-C in Manchester was the Gasta presentation format, pioneered by the Irish Learning Technology Association.

Essentially, a Gasta session is a series of 5 minute lightning talks (think Pecha Kucha) created by the ITLA’s Tom Farrelly and Tony Murphy. Tom has recently written about the format on his blog, if you want to find out more about how the format came about. I had a blast doing a Gasta talk at ALT-C and thought it would be fun to bring the format to ETUG and give it a shot there.

Filling in for Tom as the MC for our Gasta session was ETUG’s Troy Welch (TRU) who did a fantastic job of setting up the session and keeping the proceedings light and flowing. Video of the Gasta session is embedded lower.

TRU was well represented in the Gasta session, with Matthew Stronach doing 2 Gasta’s, and the fantastic singing EdTech John Churchley serving up the hilarious original composition “I Done Lost My Moodle” musical Gasta talk that was the perfect cap to the Gasta session.

The other Gasta session that I want to single out was UBC’s Ian Linkletter, who’s 5 minute Gasta talk was a very personal and poignant reminder of just how powerful EdTech companies are and the kind of pressure they can exert on people who are (rightly so) critical of their practices and policies. His talk spurred me to do some Googling.

In 2016, Phil Hill wrote a blog post on eLiterate about the data use policies of the edtech platform Piazza, and how some universities who use the platform were beginning to push back against the company for how they were using student data. According to Phil, the source of the dispute between Piazza and the institutions was, “Piazza’s lenient interpretation of privacy concerns and their apparent unwillingness to comply with institutional policies or guidance on student data privacy.” Ian left a comment on the blog post that very clearly explained the issues he had with Piazza’s data collection policies. If you read the comment, it is no different than the type of comment that good edtech’s leave on the web everyday about edtech products, which is astute, detailed and critical of a bad data retention policy that exposes students. Exactly the kind of work that you would expect a good educational technologists would do (and Ian is a very good educational technologist). It was this comment that triggered a terrible episode for Ian. Piazza hit back, and contacted his employer voicing their concern about how vocal and public Ian was being with his criticism.

Now, it’s important to note that Ian is not tenured faculty. He doesn’t have that sort of protection that comes from being an academic, even though he works in an academic environment. He is, as many educational technologists are, support staff, playing by a different set of rules around academic freedom and the protection that offers than the instructors and faculty members he works with. I have been in a similar situation to Ian where pressure was put on my organization to do something about me because of a stance I took on an issue. It is a deeply unsettling and uncomfortable situation. You can only imagine the stress and pressure that Ian was under during this time.

What can we learn from Ian’s story? First and foremost, we need to be aware that there are companies that will take these types of strong, coercive measures to make sure that their critics are silenced. I don’t want to paint all edtech companies with this brush because I have dealt with many ethical companies who would have taken a much different tact when faced with legitimate criticism online. But there are those that will do their best to make sure they silence critics, and this is one method they use to cast a cold chill over critics.

Second, if we want critical education technologists in our institutions, managers and directors need to be prepared to stand by their staff and fully support them when they make valid, critical comments about the bad policies and practices of the edtech companies we work with. For me, this is one of the most important aspects of ensuring that we develop critical educational technologists. EdTech’s need to feel that they have the power and, indeed, the responsibility to hold companies feet to the fire when they act inappropriately. In order to do that, EdTech’s can’t feel like they are risking their careers when being legitimately critical in public spaces. They need to know their back is covered when the pressure comes. And, if you are a critic, that pressure will come.

Finally, we need to applaud people like Ian who have the courage to come forward and tell their stories. Because it is in these stories that the veil of backroom threats and pressure gets revealed for all of us to learn from. So, thank you Ian for having the courage to come forward and tell your story.

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