Open and privacy


In their presentation at the Open Education 2018 conference entitled “Open” Education and Student Learning Data: Reflections on Big Data, Privacy, and Learning Platforms, Billy Meinke and Steel Wagstaff asked whether we might consider open education to include the value of respecting privacy. Their presentation was about data gathered from students by educational technology tools, some principles we should consider when using learning analytics, and how one might include a privacy statement in one’s syllabus. The slides are chock-full of information and extra reading; I highly recommend you take a look.

Similarly, in a keynote I gave at the eCampus Ontario Technology-Enhanced Seminar and Showcase in 2017, I had a slide that said: “open is not the opposite of private.” I want to here dig a little more deeply into how and why that could be the case, since on first glance it could seem these are opposed.

In another keynote in 2017 (What’s Open about Open Pedagogy?), I tried to come up with some overarching similarity between various aspects of what people have called “open pedagogy,” including: students producing OER, students co-creating curricula, connecting people in a course to people outside of it, being transparent & fostering trust, and ensuring equity in teaching and learning. It seemed to me at the time (see slide 33 in the deck for that talk) that one way to link them all together was around removal of barriers: between teachers and students, between a class and people outside of it, barriers that block visibility….

But if what’s open about open pedagogy (and possibly open access, open educational resources, and other parts of open education) is the reduction or removal of barriers, then why isn’t privacy—which seems to be about closing things off—the opposite of open? Or rather, for the purposes of this post, why would it make sense to say that one of the values of open education could be to be concerned about and respect privacy?

Access and Agency

I think the answer is that my earlier thinking was too narrow: what’s open about a number of aspects of open education isn’t just about reducing barriers, it’s about what reducing those barriers allows, makes possible. Opening educational resources allows not just access to them without cost, but also the possibility of revision and remixing. Open data allows others to reuse that data to investigate new questions. Open pedagogy breaks down the barrier between teacher as expert and students as passive recipients of knowledge, and allows students to contribute knowledge and resources that benefit others beyond the course.

The reduction of barriers allows people to, as it I put it in a workshop at Davidson College in May of 2018 (see slides for Day 1 of that workshop), contribute their knowledge and resources through creation and revision of resources, and connect and collaborate with other students, their teacher, and others outside of their courses. And to do this well requires the access that reduction of barriers allows, but also agency—taking a cue from DeRosa and Jhangiani’s description of open pedagogy:

… one key component of Open Pedagogy might be that it sees access, broadly writ, as fundamental to learning and to teaching, and agency as an important way of broadening that access. OERs are licensed with open licenses, which reflects not just a commitment to access in terms of the cost of knowledge, but also access in terms of the creation of knowledge.

Here, I’m tying agency to the ability to create and contribute knowledge, in addition to being able to access it (more or less) freely.

Another way to think about this: openness isn’t just about negative liberty (freedom one has when restrictions are lifted) but also positive liberty (the freedom to be able to act as one wills to do). I like the way the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains the difference between these two kinds of liberty:

On the one hand, one can think of liberty as the absence of obstacles external to the agent. You are free if no one is stopping you from doing whatever you might want to do. . . . On the other hand, one can think of liberty as the presence of control on the part of the agent. To be free, you must be self-determined, which is to say that you must be able to control your own destiny in your own interests.

Agency is not just about the absence of barriers to doing what you want, but being in control of your will, your choices, your actions. The SEP also quotes Isaiah Berlin, who gave a famous lecture in 1958 (“Two Concepts of Liberty”) in which he describes his view of negative and positive liberty, with the latter having to do with answering the question, “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

Agency and privacy

To support people’s agency in relation to open educational practices, one needs to let them choose whether, what and how to share work they produce. Rajiv Jhangiani gave the example in a presentation at Open Ed 2018 of letting people choose the license they want to use when sharing (and being too narrow about what counts as the “right” kind of license to was prominent among notes from sessions Rajiv and I and others facilitated over the last year on what could be done to destroy the open education movement–see our Open Ed 2018 slides). If we want to think about this in terms of ownership and intellectual property, we can say that content creators need to be allowed to choose what to do with their work, even when we would like to see more content be given open licenses. The ability of someone to even add an open license depends on copyright, which gives them the legal right to choose whether and how to share their work.

Another aspect of agency is allowing people to choose how visible they want their activities to be, in addition to choosing if and how they want to share what they produce. This doesn’t rely on IP or copyright, but perhaps on some other kind of ownership (though I confess I’d rather think about it outside of the concept of ownership, this is all that’s coming to me at the moment!): ownership of oneself, one’s choices, one’s actions. I need to be able to choose which of my activities I want to allow others to be aware of (realizing that one may not have much in the way of such a choice is what makes things like the site that Meinke and Wagstaff were running at the beginning of their presentation at Open Ed 2018 so creepy).

So in short, I’m linking open to agency, and agency to privacy. This is one possible way to think about why privacy makes sense as a value in open education. I expect there are others. If you can think of one, please let us know in the comments!