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EdTech: A new big brother?

EdTech: A new big brother?

[ / asbe]

Though largely ignored by mainstream media, the disruption last September of a virtual panel discussion at San Francisco State University (SFSU) was definitely noticed by an alarmed academic community. Along with the Washington-based publication Inside Higher Ed, a handful of alternative digital media outlets reported on how Zoom, Facebook and other technology companies actively worked to stop the promotion and transmission of the event through their platforms.

Titled “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice and Resistance,” the roundtable included Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestine National Council.

Zoom banned the panel discussion for allegedly violating its terms of service. YouTube cut off its streaming service part way through the feed of the discussion. And Facebook removed the page promoting the event for “violating our policy prohibiting praise, support and representation for dangerous organizations and individuals.”

But as John K. Wilson, co-editor of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Academe blog pointedly states, the ban came about “after a campaign to censor it was led by a large number of pro-Israel groups. It is an example of the growing power of conservative cancel culture, and this censorship reveals the threat to academic freedom posed by tech companies who are under intense pressure from the right to ban controversial ideas.”

Both the AAUP and CAUT have co-signed letters with allied organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship and Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression to the tech giants to express dismay at the bans, and demand they affirm their organizations’ commitment to respecting academic freedom and freedom of expression. Most importantly, the letters ask for assurance that their platforms will not interfere in the search for and dissemination of knowledge by shutting down debate at universities and colleges.

No written response to the letters has materialized, and Zoom — and in some instances Facebook — have, meanwhile, continued to unilaterally pull the plug on other virtual events organized by universities in the US and Canada, which were also to include Khaled.

Taking censorship to the next level, on October 23, Zoom shut down a webinar on censorship by technology companies, hosted by the New York University (NYU) chapter of the AAUP, and co-sponsored by several NYU departments and institutes. The webinar was scheduled to discuss the original censorship incident by Zoom, Facebook and YouTube of the SFSU event featuring Leila Khaled.

“Of course, we recognize that it is an act of sick comedy to censor an event about censorship, but it raises serious questions about the capacity of a corporate, third-party vendor to decide what is acceptable academic speech and what is not,” responded the NYU-AAUP Executive Committee. “The shutdown of a campus event is a clear violation of the principle of academic freedom that universities are obliged to observe. Allowing Zoom to override this bedrock principle, at the behest of organized, politically motivated groups, is a grave error for any university administration to make, and it should not escape censure from faculty and students.”

These disquieting incidents have served to shine a spotlight on emerging concerns with the use of third-party tech platforms in the educational context, including the suppression of academic freedom, and security and privacy issues, particularly for international students and faculty using these platforms in countries where authorities monitor communications media.

The Association for Asian Studies warns that “Video-conferencing tools such as Zoom present universities with stark technological, pedagogical, and moral considerations, especially with regard to the security of student and faculty data…these issues are especially pressing due to the present COVID-19 pandemic, when many students must participate in online courses while located abroad. The expansive laws in China accommodate state censorship and compel online platforms to police and report inappropriate or illegal actions. Such regulations undermine academic freedom and place students and faculty in possible legal jeopardy, not just for the present moment, but for years into the future…”

According to CAUT Executive Director David Robinson, in the rush to go online nearly overnight last March, few contemplated these dangers. He’s since looked into some of the contracts that Canadian universities have signed with tech companies such as Zoom, and is concerned that these require that “all academic staff must adhere to Zoom's terms of use, and that any disputes are subject to resolution in a US court of law..”

Eben Moglen, a professor of law at Columbia University and founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, agrees there are serious issues with Zoom.

“Its absence of security is risible; its privacy invasions are central to its data-mining and advertising-based business model; and it pushes its data flows through servers territorially under the control of a government hostile to academic freedom, rule of law, democracy, and human rights.”

With the pandemic described as a “god-send” by one technology magazine due to the widespread uptake of videoconferencing and e-learning platforms, academic staff and their unions are looking for ways to mitigate risks to students and faculty.

Samuel Trosow, an associate professor jointly appointed to the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University, says threats to academic freedom and intellectual property rights are magnified through the use of such technologies in the classroom as they are “a persistent form of surveillance”.

“The circumstances when you’re delivering a class online are very different from when you are standing in a classroom; formerly, we would engage face-to-face in class in sometimes very sensitive or private discussion and the important thing was that these types of engagements were not recorded. There was no persistent log of what transpired in class, or of what I handed out or displayed,” he says.

“But in the online environment this has changed. We have course management systems that record all entries; teaching activities are recorded, tracked, maintained, and they are capable of being audited and brought up later. There are immediate copyright issues, and we need to remember that the rights that we have in order to conduct our instruction under conditions of academic freedom and some level of privacy need to be replicated as much as possible in the online environment.”

Alison Hearn, also an associate professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western, and chair of CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, says academic staff and the faculty association need to look into the contracts being signed to protect professional rights.

Access to a range of technologies is appealing to teachers trying to create compelling online classes for students, but the potential cost should be weighed, she says.

“In their commercial licences, tech companies promise not to sell data and to use it only to improve its own products or to share with third party partners. Well, ‘third-party partners’ means just about everyone, and there have been a lot of data breaches, with student or staff information being purloined and sold.”

Trosow is also calling for rigorous scrutiny of platforms such as Zoom, and the terms under which they are being used on campuses: “Academic staff associations need to get more aggressive in dealing with the technological tools that are given to us, but that aren’t selected by us,” he says. “We don’t know what’s going on in the back end of these systems. There are serious emerging threats to intellectual freedom and privacy.”

Hearn points to resources for faculty, academic staff associations and administration such as a guide by the Association for Asian Studies. The guide outlines steps that can be taken to protect the exercise of academic freedom while ensuring the safety of students based in other jurisdictions and intellectual property.

“Associations and administrations must work quickly, and together, to push back against corporate control of academic work to protect the quality of education in a remote teaching environment and faculty and students,” she warns.


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