Education Evolutions #53

IMG_4227 flickr photo by Jemimus shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Select Readings and Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

After last week, I felt like I was off my newsletter game a bit. Of course, this week I had even more selections to pick through as a result. I have been trying to keep things limited to three more often than not, knowing everyone is busy. Plus, if one, or more, is on the longer side, it seems like three is plenty. So apart from the occasional extra article linked in my commentary, I am trying to be a bit more disciplined about sticking to just three. We will see how long that lasts, I guess.

If there is a theme to this week at all, it might be how the data that we generate regularly just might be used against us in ways that we are not always aware or have even considered very thoughtfully. The trouble is that we often do not consider the implications of all the data tracking maybe with the kind of critical thought that we should, instead opting for the self-satisfaction associated with convenience and ease.

That being said, my winner for “If you read only one article…” this week has to be the second one, “A Guide for Resisting Edtech: the Case against Turnitin.” Turnitin has become a pretty ubiquitous tool employed by schools across the spectrum and a lot of administrators like it and teachers adopt it. While one often referenced feature is the ability to create a database of canned comments that can be used to provide feedback for students, the product is at its core a plagiarism detector. Yet, that core function introduces a whole range of additional issues that do not seem to factor in the almost blind adoption that it encourages.

Hope you have a good week and enjoy Valentine’s Day without getting a cavity.

Here are three curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

How big data is helping states kick poor people off welfare – Vox –  Sean Illing (6-minute read)

For anyone that is unfamiliar with just how algorithms can be biased and used in unanticipated ways to benefit some and punish others, this is a good primer. Perhaps the subtitle is more telling with the quote, “These systems make our values visible to us in a way that calls us to a moral reckoning.” What’s more, the values made visible may just be those of a very select few and not the wider body politic. whether we have the stomach for a moral reckoning remains to be seen.

Reinforcing stereotypes and negative narratives is only part of the problem, the underlying assumptions are far greater problems and the technology only seems to amplify them. These are the kinds of issues that big data creates almost out of whole cloth. For anyone that thinks, “I don’t care if [they] collect data on me I am not doing anything wrong and don’t have anything to hide,” perhaps they should think again. All kinds of data is collected and can be interpreted to justify all kinds of assumptions, be they ethical, defensible, or not. It might be easy for some to dismiss this kind of thing since it seems to most acutely impact those most vulnerable. However, I would strongly suggest that we are all far more vulnerable than we think.

A Guide for Resisting Edtech: the Case against Turnitin – Digital Pedagogy Lab –  Sean Michale Morris and Jesse Stommel (23-minute read)

I have long resisted Turnitin specifically for some of the reasons included in this article, namely that the whole system operates on a negative, police-state paradigm. I would also humbly submit that plagiarism is a far more thorny issue than many teachers would like to believe. The line between what might be cited, what could be cited, and what should be cited is rarely black and white, especially when students are often being asked to find what expert think at the same time they are asked to articulate what they themselves think. It quickly becomes messy business, except in the most obvious copy-and-paste attempts to cheat. Still, this long-read dives into issues that are even more nuanced and important.

On some level, this piece does an excellent job of turning the whole Turnitin concept on its head. Not only does the product insert itself into the relationship between student and teacher, it engages in some other more insidious activities that should cause any educator pause. The first paragraph sizes it up quite succinctly in stating that Turnitin seizes “control of student intellectual property” and “can strip mine and sell student work for profit.” Framed like that, which is pretty accurate, I find it hard to reconcile how it can be used in any way that is ethically justifiable. Quite simply, it disenfranchises students, who also happen to be the most vulnerable and powerless players in the arrangement. What this post does even better is explain how the product undermines critical thinking, as well as digital literacies and citizenship, areas that educators should be actively trying to strengthen in students at all levels.

The techlash against Amazon, Facebook and Google—and what they can do – The Economist –  Eve Smith (23-minute read)

There is little question about the rise in scrutiny that the largest tech firms have begun inviting. Any corporations that grow as large and dominant in the marketplace as the three mentioned in the headline are bound to attract the gaze of governments. Interestingly, Europe seems to be way ahead of the United States in this regard and has been for some time. The times may be changing but consumerism continues to rule the day in this country. We have long sacrificed things like privacy for convenience.

What is most interesting to me about this article is how many of the suggestions would benefit consumers, even though they seem incapable of applying the kind of pressure required to compel the companies into putting some of these suggestions into practice. Perhaps the heat that they are drawing might be encouragement enough but I remain unconvinced. I suspect these three, in particular, will continue to find every way possible to exercise their dominance until they are forced to do otherwise. I also think that we are still pretty far from actually enacting any regulations or other means of control any time soon in the country.

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