Relearning Privacy

students_at_laptopsBy Kate Green


There has always been a close relationship between my formal learning and digital technology, certainly from the mid 2000s. I was told to use a search engine to find information online and to be wary of Wikipedia’s credibility. I was directed to write essays on a word processing document. I was taught how to build formulae into a spreadsheet. All the while I was told how to use programs and the Internet at a basic level, but never taught why. My teachers seemed like they were always trying to catch up.


Most of my more exploratory learning of the digital was during my spare time. I didn’t have a broadband connection at home until my early teens so I would cycle to my local library to learn how to code my very own (or so I thought at the time) website on I taught myself photographic practices with YouTube videos and blogs. I found new music using MySpace. I soon learned that I could also get my hands on a lot of things for free. I considered this learning experience to be private in my local circles, my family, friends and teachers might have been aware of these interests, but I wasn’t ever going to be formally assessed on them. And with that assurance, I had the freedom to learn what I wanted to.


But like most learners, I made lots of mistakes, some of which I am only coming to learn from today: I made mistakes that were realised immediately- like when I corrupted the home computer. But I was making others that weren’t so straight forward, that compromised both my online security and indeed my privacy: I used the same email and password for everything, and, I had also allowed corporations to build a picture of me that included my personal information, interests and a lot of my worries. For many, teenage years are extremely transformative: we begin to learn lots about the world and how we start to position ourselves within it. Being allowed to make mistakes is an important part of learning, but it also reminds us that we are vulnerable in this process. We are uncertain and ignorant and this is okay within the contexts of the learning environment; it is expected that students know less in the topic area that the teacher is teaching. This learning transaction and its accompanying vulnerabilities are contextualised, acknowledged and respected. But my learning with and in digital spaces does not feel so neat and tidy.


My digital learning practices changed again when I became a public learner in the Open and Connected photography classes Picbod and Phonar. What this meant was that my classmates and I would publicly tweet our notes of class materials and share reflective blog posts through the learning networks on Twitter or Google+. I had exposed my learning to unfamiliar people outside of the traditional learning environment. This open and public practice of learning made me feel vulnerable to begin with, but soon became extremely rewarding. I was speaking with professionals and remote learners publicly through Twitter and there grew an enabling and supportive learning community. For the first time I felt that I was using the Internet as a communication tool for learning, rather than solely for information acquisition.


I had to learn publicly and online before I started to think seriously about what data sharing could mean. I understood that Jonathan Worth, my lecturer, was interested in the concept of public note sharing, and he was (and still is with #CClasses) trying to understand how to leverage pre-existing networks to support learners. His motivations were transparent and that enabled me to trust him. But, I became hugely aware that I had been haemorrhaging data into spaces that were not designed for nor was sensitive to learning vulnerabilities. And unlike my lecturer, it is never clear how the data being collected of and about me is being used and to what ends. But the lack of clarity of what happens with my data does not only sit within public and corporate infrastructures: it did not cross my mind that I did not own my student email address nor the communications between my lecturers and that this data, like at the University of Huddersfield[1], could be harvested and algorithmically processed by the institution. I had assumed that these were private (and not secret, may I point out) correspondences, where the information exchanged was contextualised between the sender and receiver. My ignorance and lack of inquisition let me down and now I am left asking a lot of questions. It should not have taken me 17 years of passive formal education before I started to inquire about what using and learning with digital technologies might come to mean.


The “Towards Openness” session at OEB 2016 will invite participants to join Christian and I to highlight the tensions between openness, technology and our right to privacy as learners. And then how we might begin to leverage openness to better support our students as informed decision makers of their own learning practices with the digital.


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