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Hey Dude – where’s my data?

October 20th, 2006 by Graham Attwell

The Bazaar project, in which I am a partner, is organising a seminar next week on the theme of ‘Hey, Dude, Where’s my Data?’.

This text, taken form the introductory flyer explains some of the themes of the seminar.

“Seminar Theme: Hey Dude, Where’s My Data?”

With Web 2.0, more and more people have their documents, products, personal details and photos stashed all over the internet – what issues does this raise for education?

The rise of commercial services

With the use of free, commercial, centrally hosted, social software services growing in education, some important issues arise; Who controls this data? Do users care that commercial services are mining their usage patterns and selling this to marketing companies? Is the nature of these ‘free’ services understood – yes, users can come in and use the base system for free but often, in return, they are bombarded with advertising and their details/usage habits are sold. However, does anyone really care? Perhaps the convenience of service outweighs the perceived downsides.”

We have asked the participants to prepare a short position paper. This is mine.

The issue of how data is stored, what is shared, who has access to it and who provides services is becoming an urgent question for education. That it has received little attention is probably a reflection of the limited understanding just what is going on by policy makers and educational managers. In some ways this is understandable. Firstly, the growth of distributed on-lien services is a recent phenomenon. Secondly, there is a digital divide in that it is younger generation who are making most use of these services.

The knee-jerk reaction of policy makers, where they have acted, is to ban such services. This is unfortunate and unsustainable. Banning access to such sites as YouTube and MySpace form schools and colleges will not make them go away. Indeed it could be seen as a dereliction of the so called ‘duty of care’ in failing to provide learners with the new and changing skills and knowledge of digital literacy.

What are the issues regarding distributed data and services?

1. Longevity.
Will it be there in the future? Internet companies come and go – especially at the moment. Services which are presently free may not be in the future. Even where services do continue it is easy to eradicate your own data. I was accessing my Google account on a new computer and was (stupidly) using a Spanish language interface. Instead of ticking to agree to the conditions, I clicked not to agree. Google instantly wiped my previously uploaded videos from their server. Of course I could upload them again but now they have new urls meaning all previous links are broken.
2. Security.
Other contributers to the Bazaar seminar have already said much on this so I will be brief. It is fairly obvious that service providers are struggling to provide secure services and ass the services grow it may be that security will be difficult to maintain.
3. Ethics.
Once more other contributers have pointed out the potential clash of ethics between education and learning and the shareholder / venture capitalist driven interest of many of the commercial service providers.

Of course it would be easy to say that the answer lies in only using locally installed services and blocking access for education institutions to the commercial services and social community sites. However the point and great attraction of many of these services is that they are social and community sites. Moreover it is through the user base and access to data form other users that they acquire their utility. Even blogging loses much of its attractions in a walled community.

What are the potential answers?

  1. Some form of regulation or code of practice for service providers. The problem here is that the web has proved notoriously difficult to regulate. However it could be possible to provide some kind of kitemarking for approved sites if they adopt approved practices. This has happened to some extent with self policing by the internet chat providers. However, it is difficult to see how the regulation could be extended given the border free nature of the internet.
  2. The provision of national services for education as a service infrastructure. But this would be expensive, large scale internet projects are prone to failure and it could become as much an infringement on privacy as privately provided services. National services may lack the agility of the present explosion in web 2.0 services.
  3. The provision of services through more localized public infrastructure – for instance local education organisations or the public library infrastructure. This already exists to some extent and has some attractions – I will return to this idea further on in the position paper.
  4. Learners taking more responsibility for their data through the provision of an extended portfolio or Personal Learning Environment. Learners would remain free to use external services accessed through their PLE. However important data would be held on local repository.

This is my preferred solution. The extent of the present problem suggests to me that we need to speed up the implementation of portfolios and PLEs. In some countries this is happening rapidly but in others it lags behind.

Of course it still begs the question of where data is held. I would suggest that all education institutions should install a lightweight standards compliant repository. Standards will, be important for allowing data to be transferred between different institutional providers. The systems should also allow users to download and store their own data – preferably on a potable memory device.

Also standards will be important for allowing federated search between institutions and allowing communities to be developed between different institutions and applications. Whilst the data storage is local if users wish, they should be capable of sharing that data outside institutional boundaries.

This still leaves open the question of provision for those not engaged in education. What happens when a student finishes at university, for example? Some universities are already proposing to continue providing services but to charge for them. I do not believe this is the right answer. There is a strong case for Adult Education providers to have a new role in providing an PLE / Portfolio service for all adults within their geographical area. This would obviously require funding but could be of immense benefit in stimulating lifelong learning.

Regardless of what answer is adopted, perhaps the most urgent issue to to extend the idea of digital literacy to include the issue of data. Learners will have to take more responsibility for their own data in future. We should be assisting them in judging what to disclose, to who, in what contexts and how to use services sensibly. That in turn require further professional development for teachers and trainers.

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