Monday, July 25, 2011

Dear Uncle Ezra: Where's My Privacy?

I just returned from Ithaca, New York after attending the Institute for Computer Policy and the Law which is hosted every summer on the Cornell University campus. This summer, the Institute focused on the issue of privacy on college campuses and what educators need to do in order to protect it. Although discussions about privacy have never been out of vogue, they are particularly topical these days because social media are giving us unprecedented opportunities to reveal who we are online. And while these outlets are a boon for self-expression, they can, when wielded inappropriately, seriously, and sometimes permanently, damage reputations. Ten months ago on Sept 28th, Rutger’s freshmen Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate surreptitiously streamed a live video feed of Tyler having sex with another male in their dorm room. The Tyler Clementi case serves as a reminder that student privacy is increasingly challenging to protect in an era of social networking and ubiquitous surveillance. If it wasn’t the event which inspired ICPL’s focus on privacy, it certainly could have been.

How should we as college administrators or college professors deal with this problem? We are after all in the business of building student’s reputations. But how best to help them in this age of hyper-connectivity?

FERPA, of course, offers some guidance (and attorneys at ICPL went over this at length). As university employees we need to be mindful of our student’s privacy as we’re carrying out our jobs. But beyond FERPA, I left ICPL with the strong impression that we also need to be engaging with our students so that they too take up the conversation. ICPL held one of these conversations in a panel discussion that was reported last week in Inside Higher Education. You can read the full account there but for me the biggest lesson I learned was that students actually value privacy. Although there has been some talk that students don’t care about it (a sentiment that would jibe with Mark Zuckerberg’s pronouncement that privacy is dead) at least one student on the panel seemed to suggest that this is a misconception. Students may treat their own privacy (and that of others) fairly casually in their initial forays into social networks. But it doesn’t take more than one bad experience posting too much of oneself online to inculcate more moderated sharing. So we can all sigh a bit of relief: it doesn’t look like the next generation is inclined (at least not en masse) to duplicate the foibles of Anthony Weiner. Like the rest of us, they too are learning the art of discretion.

The ICPL conversation mostly emphasized the dimensions of privacy that are defined when we make choices about how much of ourselves to share online. When we produce content and share it with others we are of course redefining what of our lives is private and what is public in fundamental ways. But beyond this production oriented definition I wonder whether privacy awareness could also be enriched by broadening the definition of privacy to include the experience of seclusion and solitude and the particular psychological and intellectual spaces that are created when we moderate not only our production but our consumption of digital resources. Privacy, after all, isn’t just about what we choose to share of ourselves online, but how much of our time we choose to spend in the company of others and how much time we choose to spend alone. These are the types of questions that William Powers takes up in Hamlet’s Blackberry and William Deresiewicz in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece titled “The End of Solitude.” On my campus we’re promoting these latter conversations about privacy as well in a project titled “Concentration in the Humanities” in which we ask students to alternatively work in private and communal spaces and consider which ones catalyze better writing. When the definition of privacy is broadened this way we can (potentially) engage students not only by appealing to their long term interest in reputation but their more immediate interest in being better writers.

As one speaker mentioned on the last day of the conference the mission of the university suffers when students and instructors have to worry about excessive surveillance. When we’re surveiled overmuch, students and professors feel constrained, and our interest in contributing to the marketplace of ideas diminishes. This is an important point. But it’s also worth noting that the mission also suffers when our students and professors are so connected that they can’t differentiate between their own thoughts and those of the digital hive. Discussions about privacy, are, ultimately, also discussions about identity and the extent to which we subscribe to individualistic or communitarian senses of the self. These senses of the self, in turn, give definition to competing visions of what a university education is for (Is it there to cater to the desires and ambitions of private wants and ambitions? Or is it there to cater to the broader needs of the community?) Privacy thus framed can then address the immediate pragmatic need to guard student’s reputations while at the same time broaching more fundamental problems about the nature of the self, what it means to be an educated person, and the missions of the university.

If the theme of this year’s ICPL talk was inspired by the Tyler Clementi case, it was especially fitting that the conference ended with a presentation on Cornell’s “Dear Uncle Ezra” which, in Ann Lander’s or Dear Abby mode, dispenses therapeutic advise online to students who write in with their questions. When it was deployed in 1986 one of the early questions and answers was from someone contemplating jumping off one of Cornell’s infamous bridges. Here’s the letter (and answer) quoted in full:

Dear Uncle Ezra:


Dear Considering,

Most people, at one time or another, consider suicide as an answer to their problems. As Ann Landers says, suicide doesn't solve problems, i t only passes them on from you to the survivors -- family, friends,loved ones, and other people who care about you.

Suicide is usually an attempt to deal with a crisis. The Chinese character for "crisis" translates into "dangerous opportunity." Suicide is a permanent solution, and eliminates other options. So if you're hurting so much that you are willing to pass the pain on to those who care, perhaps you could use this dangerous opportunity to try some other options first.

Ithaca and Cornell have a number of services specifically to help people in crisis. Call Suicide Prevention any time at 272-1616, go to Psychological Services in Gannett Health Center (255-5208), talk with a chaplain in CURW (118 Annabel Taylor Hall, 255-4214), talk with a friend, and use this opportunity to change your life for the better.

Problems have solutions. Your life has value. Please give it a chance.

Uncle Ezra

Clementi, who wasn’t at Cornell, didn’t get a chance to write directly to Ezra. And even if he had, it’s sheer speculation to say that Ezra would have turned the course of events with any more success than the help that was offered to Clementi at Rutgers. But that speculation isn’t my purpose here. I post the Ezra letter to show that the identity of the self in college can be a very fragile thing, whether we’re talking about the college experience in 1986 or 2010, and that we, as educators and administrators, can help to nurture that self by helping students to think through their sense of selves as private, isolated (and sometimes lonely) individuals and their selves as shaped and defined by a larger community of (as Ezra puts it) “family, friends, loved ones , and other people who care about you.” This isn’t to say that the conversation will yield simple answers about privacy. After all, it appears that in one sense Clementi didn’t have enough privacy. And yet, in another sense he might have been saved had he been less private about his suffering. Talks on privacy framed this way can, hopefully, deepen the conversation and bring our students into closer touch with the abiding questions that should be central in university life.

Monday, July 11, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution....

I'm finishing my 11th week teaching in the Canvas system. As an instructor who has taught extensively in Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai here are my current impressions of the product and the larger community:

Just when you had given up all hope that Utah’s hotbed of digital innovation would produce an LMS of your liking, along comes Instructure’s Canvas a system that promises to rock the industry off of it’s clay feet. Plenty of people have already reported about Instructure’s eminently usable interface and my own experience teaching a course in it over this summer semester is something I want to talk about a bit later.

But first a bit about Utah as that hotbed of LMS innovation – it’s actually true. After all, we’re the progenitor of Novell and Wordperfect as well as plenty of more recent startups. So if you suffer from some sort of reverse provincialism – thinking that really cool LMS innovations are only going to come from the coasts, or from Silicon Valley or from cities or universities with a reputation for a more cosmopolitan orientation, the Instructure product will lift that veil quickly. Use it as I have for only a few days and I guarantee that it will knock your teaching socks off.

This has not been easy for me to admit, because for years now I’ve been using and promoting Sakai and Moodle. I’ve been doing so because of their open, global communities and the promise that involvement with those communities would benefit my own university’s commitment to global outreach. Back in the summer of 2008, when Instructure made it’s earliest pitches to me at TTIX it seemed implausible that a more locally situated organization, with a much smaller body of developers who were all concentrated in one area could compete with that value proposition.

And yet on a functional level, it’s clearly competing. As Michael Feldstein has noted, Canvas has streamlined the number of clicks it takes to work in the gradebook – that bane of almost all LMSs. But I don’t need to repeat those accolades here. What I find most impressive about Canvas are two things: A design that looks spare but (like a very good waiter) presents functionality when and where you need it. And a design that draws students toward the activities they need to do in a course even when you might be a little forgetful. In this regard, Canvas is sort of like an executive secretary on speed. Once you’ve constructed and scheduled your assignments, Canvas will present prompts and course views that will keep even the spacier students on track and informed about what needs to be done, the consequences of not doing it, as well as the larger learning outcomes that are associated with each activity in the course. Do you get tired (or sometimes forget) to remind students of upcoming assignments or ones that might be past due? If you do Canvas will remind students for you. And if you sometimes wonder whether students understand or take into account the relative weight of different activities, Canvas presents easily accessible gradebook views that drive this message home. And for students who actually work prospectively, Canvas automatically generates a calendar with the course’s activities so that they can think about the course’s various commitments in the context of their other lives. Finally, for students who aren’t just grade grubbers or scheduling fanatics, but who are actually thinking intellectually about the course, Canvas allows them to view a list of learning outcomes and to grasp how those learning outcomes are aligned with the various activities in the course.

While there is plenty to gush about in Canvas (and if you want to participate in the gushing subscribe to the listserv by sending an email to : or come to Instructure's upcoming August conference in cool Snowbird, Utah) this isn’t to say that I don’t have a few reservations about moving to Canvas . I’ve worked for a long time with Sakai and Moodle and have developed many collegial relationships in those communities. And right now I’m participating in an NEH grant that came my way in part because of the social and professional relationships that I’ve developed with those organizations.

So while there are plenty of nice things to celebrate in the Canvas product, this hardly means that we should all of a sudden forget these other associations or gloss over all of the contributions that these other communities have made, and are continuing to make to the development and refinement of the LMS.

It is in this context that I lament Instructure’s use of the iconography of war and insurrection to suggest what is going on in the LMS landscape or the relationship between the various players. It’s best instantiated by their release a couple months ago of the following video which is a takeoff of Apple’s 1984:

To some extent this is forgivable; Canvas really is the upstart David to Blackboard’s entrenched Goliath. And it would be nice to see a bit of Blackboard’s near monopolistic hold on the market eroded (or in the parlance of the day, “disrupted”) by Canvas innovation. It’s after-all what Steve Jobs was trying to do 30 years ago when 1984 was released and I don’t know anyone who seriously begrudges that marketing campaign. But one thing that distinguishes the Canvas-Blackboard narrative from the Apple-PC scene is that there are also a number of strong open source players in the LMS market including Sakai and Moodle. These organizations, in terms of their governance structures and their disposition to transparency and openness are at least as revolutionary as Instructure is. Moreover, while Instructure presents itself as something entirely new, one would have to put on some serious blinders not to see the many aspects of the product which are derivative of prior art. A good example of this is their modules tool which is an obvious copy of Moodle’s. The product, despite the marketing campaign and the gush, has not emerged ex nihilo nor is it something entirely new. More accurately, it’s a refinement of prior art in a field that many claim has largely been commoditized.

I suspect, as Canvas gains market share (which as early adopters of their product I and my institution seriously want) the adversarial nature of their marketing can be toned down and the intellectual debt which all of these LMS initiatives owe to each other can be more openly acknowledged. After all, it’s universities to whom these organizations ultimately cater and it’s from their feedback that these organizations learn in which way to innovate. And in so far as universities espouse the ideal of openness, proper attribution and spirited collaboration one would think that our LMS partners would ultimately align behind those values as well. Here’s hoping they will.