Wednesday, August 2, 2017

What a Difference a Decade Makes: Privacy, Digital Footprints, & Education

The very first class I taught at the university level was ENC 1101, almost 10 years ago to the day. While the Department granted a great deal of academic freedom to its instructors, there were three major writing assignments that every 1101 student was expected to complete. I don't remember the details of two of the assignments, most likely a personal narrative and descriptive essay, but the details of one assignment have never left me. It was a light research paper, in a compare/contrast format, about the benefits and complications of social media. Looking back, I'm not sure if we were ahead of our time or way too late. 

As my wide-eyed, nervous freshman sat staring back at their equally wide-eyed, nervous professor, I asked them to work in small groups to think about the ways social media was changing communication. Being a novice instructor, I wasn't exactly sure how to frame the discussion in an academic context, so we focused mostly on how people used language (on Myspace, which was the main form of social media at the time) and the benefits of staying in touch with people you wouldn't otherwise see. I relied pretty heavily on my own experiences. I wasn't quite 30 yet, so the people in my age group were using social media to find high school and college friends that had long since disappeared from our Nokias and Blackberries. 

Nearly every paper I got from that project was exactly the same. I read over and over again about how powerful it was to have a personal digital space and about how scary it was to actually live in there. They cited cyber bullying and predators as contrasting points to family reunions and the ability to be "friends" with celebrities. And while many of these points are similar to ones we could raise today, the one thing no one talked about was privacy. 

As I finished this week's readings on privacy, and thought back to our conversations from the data analytics class, I couldn't get that first set of students out of my head. That project didn't show up on the syllabus after that school year, but I think its objectives were noble and not so far removed from many of the points raised in the readings. While we may not know everything about privacy, I do think we, as educators, have a responsibility to learn as much as we can. And I want students (and faculty) to consider the ramifications of their own digital footprints, yet I recognize how important collecting some of that data can be. 

In fact, I've just gotten off of a planning call for an upcoming faculty development workshop. In that workshop, we're going to show faculty how to collect data from the LMS to measure engagement rates and, hopefully, improve the academic success of their students through a very structured approach. Much like the 1101 project, we are doing this with the purest intention - we want to be able to help students be successful - but doing that involves looking into their habits and patterns. This is by no means new or different that what other institutions are doing, but it does put us in an interesting place when we look at privacy. In education,  I still think the benefits of collecting data outweigh the complications, but would I feel differently about it if it were a company, rather than an institution, doing it?

As we continue to navigate the complicated world of privacy, I think the key is transparency with our students. But it's much more about helping them understand the permanency and reach of their online lives than it is to create fear or distrust, which can sometimes be the case when we talk about privacy. If I had it to do all over again, I don't think I'd change too much about that social media project from a decade ago, but I do have some ideas about how different my role would be. 

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