Pop Up Ed Tech, Trust, and Ephemerality

This post captures a back and forth text conversation that Tannis Morgan and I had about an idea that piqued her interest from my NGDLE rant in 2017. I really enjoyed the way we worked this up between us. I wrote a lot of it fast and off the cuff and I’m sure with editing it would be more coherent, but hey ho, it can stand. As an aside we used the excellent Etherpad setup courtesy of the B.C. OpenETC. Etherpad remains one of my favourite tools for super-simple collaborative writing.

Tannis: The other day we were chatting about open ed tech infrastructures and you mentioned something that caught my attention… you called it Pop up tech.  My head went to the concept of pop up shops, physical spaces that are occupied briefly by a brand and their products that may exist online the rest of the time, and I’m curious if you can say a bit more about what pop up tech is?

AMS: Yeah – this was something I wrote about as part of my rant on the NGDLE concept and it came from several different places. Firstly I was seeing a few tweets about students getting in touch with Universities after they’d graduated and asking for blogs they’d created to be taken down as they no longer wanted this stuff hanging around. At the same time I was re-reading some ideas JISC had about next generation learning environments – they mooted the idea of the pop-up VLE, but never took it further. Finally, I was reading stuff about Transcyberian who run cryptoparty events which seem to be a mashup of a hackathon and a dance party. That’s where the reference to Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones writing came from:

“Any attempt at permanence that goes beyond the moment deteriorates to a structured system that inevitably stifles individual creativity. It is this chance at creativity that is real empowerment.”

As I dug into that more I really liked it as a metaphor for how EdTech might behave. I think we’re all inherently a little lazy and that’s what a lot of software companies bank on – making it as frictionless as possible for you to do things that might not be in your best interests. So I started thinking more about what the possibilities of pop-up / impermanent / self-destructing edtech tools might look like. I coined the phrase “emphemeral by design” and wondered what sorts of creative possibilities might appear if we know the tool / space we’re working in isn’t permanent? Might we make different choices? Take different risks? Be bolder / braver / more experimental? I also like the idea that positive action needs to be taken to *keep* a thing rather than delete a thing. That seems to have the possibility of more informed / intentional decision making. There are immediate personal consequences to inaction and you’re working to your own interests, not someone else’s. After this I saw some tweets relating to a talk Mike Caulfield gave about information environmental activism and I thought that was quite a nice methaphor too. There’s something about building in the clean up as part of the systems we use that seems to be at the heart of privacy by design for me.

Tannis: What I find interesting about the pop up tech idea is how it runs counter, or perhaps in conjunction with  a somewhat pervasive idea of digital preservation.  For example, I might very much want to ensure that my family photos are preserved, but I’m not sure I care about the essay I wrote in my undergrad, or the report I wrote at my former job.  Increasingly, I find the pressure to preserve has resulted in boxes full of external hard drives and other distractions that I call digital pollution.  So the idea of the default action being “to keep” vs to “delete” is really appealing to me.  I’m curious how you think this might play out in a teaching and learning context.  Are there examples you’ve encountered where pop up tech might have resulted in a different or more enriched teaching and learning experience?

AMS: It’s not an idea that I’ve been able to put into practice yet, but we have just agreed the retention policy for our new WordPress blogging platform and by default student work will be deleted when they leave the University, unless there’s some intervention to keep it for longer. That intervention will require a staff member to take over the admin of the blog, and for the student to give explicit consent for it to be kept. That is consistent with data protection law, and respects that the copyright for this work belongs to the student and they should have agency over that. So it will be interesting to see how this unfolds over time…

What I would also say is that after I wrote about this on my blog, I found an academic paper from Cornell about Snapchat which looked at some of the same considerations “Automatic Archiving versus Default Deletion: What Snapchat Tells Us About Ephemerality in Designand it picked up on some observations around what they called “Performance with Less Self-consciousness Behaviour”. That could well be an effect of the tighter personal networks that the platform observes, but there was definitely something about playful, slightly more risk-taking behaviour that seemed to bear out the same thinking.

The other thing that connects with this is that at the same time, my colleague Prof Sian Bayne was concluding a research project on the YikYak platform (for those that remember it was an anonymous chat platform very heavily used in Universities and Colleges). She was lamenting the loss of what was for some a space where some conversations about the realities of life at Uni could be discussed. She tied this to Amy Collier’s work around Digital Sanctuaries and published a piece for WonkHE (a UK website for academic policy nerds) which is a good summation of her thinking

“…with its closure, universities lost something – a light touch, hyperlocal, ephemeral and low-stakes peer network where students could ask stupid questions, raise difficult issues and support each other through awkward times.”

Tannis: It’s interesting that you bring up Snapchat, which promised ephemerality but didn’t live up to the promise. Your retention policy for WordPress seems to be be a good way of communicating both an expectation and a promise perhaps, which is a step towards building trust.   How does trust come into this, whether it’s YikYak or Snapchat or pop up tech?

AMS: I love that you mentioned trust as that’s very relevant to the moment too. We thought a lot about the balance of trust versus control within our blogging service and made a deliberate decision not to lock the technology down super-tight, but to go for an approach that makes clear our expectations for use, and to devise a take-down policy to clearly and quickly deal with the very small number of issues that might ever occur. That approach I think leaves the maximum amount of creative possibility open to our students and staff – the joy of a blogging platform like WordPress is the extent to which you can make it your own. I’m going to park the question of how much trust we should have in commercial companies that provide free services to us – I think we’ve seen over and again that they aren’t trustworthy, and we should reflect on the nature of the transactions we’re engaged in.

You know that my colleague Jen Ross is about to start up a new project with Amy Collier that also focuses on trust issues in institutions – check out the site here: https://aftersurveillance.net/aims/ “‘After Surveillance’ is about imagining and developing trusting alternatives to visibility & surveillance in higher education.”

I was also given a lovely little book by visiting colleagues from the University of Aarhus. It’s called “Trust” by Gert Tinggaard Svendsen and looks at the role that trust plays in Danish economic prosperity. He talks about trust in the workplace, the “gift exchange” that comes with trust and the “social debt” that such exchange builds up. That to me sounds like how you build community and is at the heart of how our institutions should operate. I worry about the extent to which we trust our students – plagiarism detection systems, fear of being filmed in lectures, fear of students writing rude things on blogs. That’s not to say bad things don’t occasionally happen, but in my experience it doesn’t happen often.

Tannis: I know you’re involved in Apereo and ESUP-Portail, which provide open source technology to higher ed. Do you think there’s a place for pop up tech in those structures, and do you think that there is more space to engage with the trust issue in contrast to trust in commercial software (where there has been good evidence to suggest that the Silicon Valley business models aren’t working in our best interests when it comes to the type of trust we are needing in higher ed)?

AMS: I think there’s one very obvious trust issue in open source – that the code is open to inspection, scrutiny and critique. It’s not a panacea, and of course it can be modified in implementation, but I think starting from a point of transparency is not a bad place to begin. For me, engagement with Apereo and ESUP-Portail is about fostering community and ownership around open software projects and believing that we can own more of our own business and probably have a better handle on what works for education than Silicon Valley companies might. Beyond that, I think the question of whether ephemeral tech is required or not is probably a pedagogical one – what are we trying to achieve and will it help?

I don’t draw a hard distinction between open source and commercial software because there’s plenty of commercial software that’s based on open source. Many of the big platform companies release various of their projects under open source licenses and make quite a deal about it. More broadly, the question of trust in any software though is about the detail of implementation – ultimately it’s not a technology question – it’s about human motivation. You can do decidedly shady things with open source, which is a criticism Pat Lockley will level at open source licenses (“for any purpose”).

(Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash)

13 thoughts on “Pop Up Ed Tech, Trust, and Ephemerality

  1. This is really interesting.

    What are the use cases for retaining available of digital learning spaces?

    Content access for students revision
    Content access for auditability (esp what was taught
    Content access for business continuity (e.g when a new person has to take on teaching a course)
    Content access for individual students after graduation (e.g blogs, eportfolios)
    Content access as part of leaving a contribution to the open commons (e.g blogs, online collections)

    I’d be interested to hear how institutions manage the deposit, archive, closedown of spaces in those scenarios.

    That then influences the lifespan of the platforms and our requirements for content export or portability.

    Which all sounds more procedural than your post but is in a similar vein I think!

  2. Hi Anne-Marie – interesting discussion with Tannis – thanks for going to the trouble to publish it… I was intrigued by your point about deleting digital artefacts upon leaving institutions… we at the OERu agree that the idea of losing your digital history when you complete various milestones in formal education is unfortunate… our solution has been to empower learners to create their own blogs, which they can recruit into their “learning pathways” (our systems automatically reference posts they make which are tagged with our course codes)… but the learner retains control and can keep their blog for as long as they like… If you’re interested, this is a description of how our NGDLE’s interactive feed works, pulling in digital artefacts from all over the ‘net (preferring to work with open source technologies, but accepting that, in some cases, learners don’t yet know enough about them to use them): https://tech.oeru.org/wikieducator-notes-oerus-course-feed-aggregation-and-messaging-system (also, for the record, our “Blog Feed Finder” software is getting some use elsewhere in the OER world to help learners find their blog feeds – see https://tech.oeru.org/oeru-blog-feed-finder) For what it’s worth, everything we do is open source and we’re always keen to see it put to use to help others!

    1. Hi Dave – thanks for taking the time to leave a comment! I agree entirely about putting control in the hands of students where possible. The original thing that got me thinking about this whole area was watching a series of tweets from a colleague in another Uni who was responding to requests from students to delete institutional blogs now that they’d graduated. It just felt wrong that the burden for that should be all on the student. Where it’s possible to put full control in the hands of the student themselves that’s always going to be better (particularly over here in the land of GDPR). I’ve long loved the Domain of One’s Own stuff for that reason. However there are going to be lots of scenarios where students are required to use institutional tech. In those cases I still think we need to more willing to delete by default, and not leave the burden on the students. It’s a different mind-set – to purposefully throw away data – but I think it’s becoming a fundamental privacy issue.

      All that aside though, I have to say I’m really impressed with the WE Notes links you shared. I’m immediately wondering if I could get a stack up and running just for maintaining my own personal archive across all my online channels 🙂 When I get a bit of headspace free I’m going to dig into this further as I think there’s lots of potential and it’s the closest to an idea of the NGDLE that I’ve seen (and that I can stomach!). I’m in New Zealand every January so maybe I need to come down south and pick your brains over a pint sometime….

      1. Hi Anne-Marie,
        I think ultimately, if the learner has the ability to control their online footprint (and not have it behind a institutionally controlled lock-and-key) the privacy and data-retention problems largely dissipate. I think that’s the ideal situation.

        I’m interested to have some examples of where you see learners needing to use “institutional tech”… If open source tools are used (and I’d argue, strongly, that that’s the only way to respect learners’ freedom – see https://davelane.nz/reflections-proprietary-software for an exposition on that claim 🙂 ), I’m not convinced they’d *ever* need to use software managed by their institution…

        I’d welcome your efforts to create a your own WEnotes implementation, and would be happy to help – and just as happy to discuss any and all implications over a pint in NZ 🙂 – yes, please make a side trip to the “mainland” when you’re next on our shores!

        1. Hi Dave,
          I definitely don’t disagree with you regarding support for open source! However I think you’re conflating institutionally provided and proprietary software in your argument above. I do think there is a time and place for working in closed spaces (for example a Moodle course) and in those situations institutionally provided technology can be the right choice. Examples I would have are all be related to work that’s somehow sensitive in nature and where the institution has an obligation or a liability. For example medicine or veterinary medicine where students are working with confidential patient case information; music, art etc where copyright materials can be used under fair-dealing; or situations where students are working with industrial partners using commercially sensitive information. Other examples might include where the institution has a duty of care to provide a safe and secure space either for the students, or for others that they are working with e.g. – service learning projects with local communities; students studying in areas like counselling, social work etc; students studying in controversial areas such as aspects of religion, sexuality etc. Obviously the spaces that facilitate that kind of work can all be supported by open source technology. The thing that’s complex in these examples is that the rights of the student are hard to disentangle from the rights of others (patients who’ve given consent; copyright holders; community or commercial partners). Balancing all of that is tricky stuff and needs tech that is suitable.

          Yes to a pint for sure – I think we’d have a lot to talk about! And your “mainland” quip is especially funny as I spend my time in NZ with my family in the Wairarapa…not exactly a bustling metropolis…

          1. I certainly take your point regarding 3rd party privacy/confidentiality – and also agree that there’s no conflict between that and the use of open source – simply who controls the implementation and the data it contains. Yes, in some cases, it makes sense for the institution to take on that liability.

            The beauty of open source educational infrastructure is that you can replicate any working systems – but with new ownership/oversight – with very little (even no) cost… that allows the flexibility to have student-controlled content where it makes sense, and institutionally controlled where that’s prudent.

            I’m not sure about the “commercial sensitivity” argument, though 🙂 – my (open source dev) company had a policy of refusing to do business with anyone requiring an NDA… because it compromises staff’s future ability to do work – either prejudice from a future employer who sees them as a liability due to the potential to pollute their work with privileged ideas (subjecting the employer to potential lawsuit) and personal liability for future suit by original party requiring the NDA – to me, that’s not compatible with education… open source gets around all that neatly 🙂 – nothing’s secret, everything can be shared.

  3. Hi Dave – by “commercial sensitivity” I meant scenarios where students might be on placement with commercial companies – so it’s an another example of a kind of 3rd party privacy / confidentiality scenario. It wouldn’t be unusual at Masters level where there’s a placement element to run into this kind of scenario….

    1. Sure, in that case, you need to use what the company requires… I’d just suggest that, whereever possible, learners should aim to work with companies who have better, more open business models and not contribute their energies to companies engaging in proprietary software development, as they’re helping to encourage structural inequity (see https://davelane.nz/reflections-proprietary-software ) 😉

      1. I get the point you’re making but that’s still a really narrow definition of the kind of work our students might do that requires some level of commercial confidentiality. I’m really not talking about software development at all – this kind of scenario could be anything from all flavours of engineering right through to all flavours of the creative arts. I also don’t agree that open is always better. Open has structural inequalities too. We can include a chat about diversity in open source software development over that pint too 😉

        1. Ok, happy to have that chat – I’m strongly of the opinion open is always better than closed (i.e. proprietary) in a commercial sense from the perspective of everyone except, possibly, the proprietor. In social situations, I think open is always better, too, if it’s combined with respect-by-default and general sensitivity… but there’s no way in which “closed” improves on that, that I can imagine… perhaps over a pint you can help me get my head around how being closed might facilitate diversity…

          1. I’m loving this chat btw – at some point soon I’m going to get another post finished off about the need to have learning technologists embedded in institutions who develop open source applications closely aligned to specific courses (think like technicians might currently do for facilitating stuff in physical labs) and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. I’ll ping you when I get it coherent and finished!

            In the meantime, a couple of quick thoughts:
            Firstly I don’t think the opposite of open is always closed. I appreciate a lot of Catherine Cronin’s work in this space – she talks about open as being “constantly negotiated” and asks us to think about “open for whom?”. Which comes onto some of my concerns about open source in particular. There’s not a lot of diversity in open source development because there’s in general it requires a certain level of privilege in order to have the time to contribute to open source. The economic models for open source aren’t sustainable I think – which is why I’m in favour of companies that use open source contributing, either in cold hard cash, or even better, by supporting their own staff to contribute.

            I also believe our concept of open licenses is rooted in a very Western perspective and can be radically at odds with other cultures thinking about knowledge production and dissemination (this applies to GPL, MIT, CC etc). An example of different thinking in this space from your part of the world would be this: https://github.com/TeHikuMedia/Kaitiakitanga-License
            They are keen to create a license that allows the corpus of spoken Te Reo they have created to be used for their benefit and be appropriately interpreted by native speakers. Open licenses like CC would allow companies like Google or Amazon to exploit that corpus for not only no benefit, but potentially detrimental outcomes (anglicisation of Te Reo etc). I think we’ve already seen an example of this with Flickr CC licensed photos being used to train facial recognition software, so I don’t think it’s an idle fear.

            So, not about open, or closed, but about open for whom?

  4. Interesting response. And yes, a good convo (short for conversation in NZ) for posterity 🙂 Very happy to look at your upcoming post. I’d love to see learning technologists in every FOSS application team… I also think it’s desperately urgent for every education institution to employ open source developers (because they’re wasting money and opportunity hand over fist right now with all the proprietary rubbish they’re paying for, granting the suppliers proprietary monopolies over their students’ digital content and forcing their students to compromise their rights & privacy to participate, but that’s another story 🙂 )…

    Regarding FOSS sustainability, I can say, from personal experience, that FOSS can certainly be sustainable… I have made my living (first as a research scientist, developing FOSS licensed software, then running my own 100% FOSS software dev & services company for 14 years & now working as a salaried “Open Source Technologist” for the OERF. The problem, as I see it, is that the wealthiest (and therefore influential) tech entities are corporations who’ve achieved their size through proprietary monopolies, and have used their influence to change the way educational institutions and gov’ts procure digital tools. That’s the real problem. If gov’ts instead realised that they could achieve far better outcomes by funding the development of FOSS tools rather than paying to give predatory corporations full monopoly control of their IT infrastructures (which they then gleefully exploit to the great disadvantage of taxpayers and students alike – see for example https://davelane.nz/mshostage ), then things would be very different.

    Ah, your “open for whom” is an excellent question. And I’m pleased you’re aware of kaitiakitanga. It’s a great concept, and one I wish was fully embraced by our policy makers worldwide… because then we wouldn’t be in this existential crisis we’re in now.

    I fully agree with your assessment of CC-By and some open source licenses (what I call “weak” open source licenses) and the ability for corporate interests to exploit them (corporate interests, I think we can all agree, are the main source of badness in the world today, and their largess will never fund a structurally different economy – see this superb talk by the brilliant Anand Giridharadas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_zt3kGW1NM ironically given in Google’s HQ).

    I’m a strong proponent of “reciprocal” open source licenses, specifically the “Copyleft” family https://copyleft.org ). The CC analogue is CC-By-SA which I use for most of my digital content (I use some variant of the GPL for al of my open source software, where ever possible). I don’t think that “closed” is the way to address the danger of cultural appropriation. The best approach is to use a reciprocal license, which removes a lot of the motivation for businesses (who want a proprietary advantage to exploit, but can’t have one with reciprocally licensed materials) – it’s more open than just open, because it spans digital “generations” 🙂 – it imbues its descendants with openness as well.

    So I strongly believe corporate involvement in the open movement is undesireable and unsustainable because real openness is fundamentally anathema to profiteering and exploitation. Business only encourages openness *it can exploit in a closed way*… which is why, for example, Microsoft *loves open source* (but HATES the GPL and other copyleft licenses that, though also open source, it can’t exploit). The same goes for nearly all major corporate user s of open source software. That’s why I strongly prefer CC-By-SA and Copyleft…

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