The data discussion

My reflections in this post have been stimulated by the conversation between Stephen Downes and George Siemens about artificial intelligence, human cognition, what it means to be human and learning; this week’s video on eLearning 3.0 of Shelley Blake-Plock and Stephen discussing data and analytics, and my observations regarding trends in my working life.

The problem with “data”

I guess that needs some explanation? I’ll own up that I do have a problem with the term “data” and specifically about how its used. Before we get to that, I’d like to pause for a moment and ask a question: When you’re in conversation with someone you’ve just met, how do you define yourself?

  • By Job title/role?
  • By relationship (married/single/in a committed relationship/parent etc.)?
  • By location (ie where you live, e.g. country of origin)?
  • By race or gender?
  • By political or religious affiliations?

All of these bits of information are deeply personal and they are all now being gathered, stored, analysed, traded and sold as “data”.

This brings me to my problem with the term “data”: in my opinion, the indiscriminate use of this term dehumanises the deeply personal information which defines us as individuals and further, makes it more palatable (to some) to commoditise us. This depersonalisation of our information and therefore of us as individuals is amplified by the terminology in use around data – e.g. “data science”. Sounds objective eh? But the information it’s applied to isn’t.

I guess my concern is that this dehumanisation of information supports the erosion of fundamental concepts like privacy and confidentiality etc. In my own working life in human services, I’m observing a growing focus on data and analytics  to measure “success”, without really thinking about who’s “success” we’re talking about, and in planning at the macro level, without the necessary attention on the aspirations of the individuals we’re supposed to be serving.

Putting information back in control of the individual

So, it’ll be no surprise, that I firmly believe that we need to put individuals back in control of information about them and support them to do this. I was interested in this speech by Tim Cook to the European Commission on the importance of privacy as a basic human right:

There’s no doubt that GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation) is a huge step in the right direction. But, I believe that this regulation also places a duty on public services, and indeed anyone who collects user information, to provide the tools and support necessary for individuals to exercise their right to control their information.

Week 0 of eLearning 3.0, referenced the move from the Web 2.0 (the semantic web and the prevalence of platforms – like FaceBook and Twitter etc.) to Web 3.0 (the cryptographic web – see my previous post for more on this). In that context, we have to keep in mind why people use platforms like FaceBook is such huge numbers: it’s not really that that platform is seen as the best option, it’s more that it’s easy to use and, well, “everyone’s there aren’t they?” (but as David Price points out, we get the platform we deserve).

So, It think it’s vital that in this move to the cryptographic web, we need to design tools to reap the benefits of the potential of  Web 3.0 with the individual in mind, making them easy and engaging to use. Hopefully Tim Berners-Lee’s new project will take the first steps in that direction for others to follow.

xAPI and the ownership of learning

I was also interested in Stephen and Shelley’s discussion about feasibility of individually ‘owned’ Learning Record Stores (LRS) and therefore the potential for individuals to own, manage and share their own information about their learning. As Shelley points points out, there are ‘policy’ issues to be resolved around proprietary information or information sensitive to the business of the individual’s employer and/or institution, but I’d suggest they’re not insurmountable.

In my own work, we have invested 4 years in building and developing an Open Badge platform to provide micro-credentials for  people who use our learning resources (awarded on the basis of the individual providing evidence of the application of their learning to their work practices). One of they key features of this platform, is that the accounts created and the evidence submitted to claim badges, belong to the individual – not us (as the provider of the service) or their employer (past, present or future). The learning information and their attainments belong to them and their own badge account can follow them throughout their career.

I know this isn’t an LRS, or gathering xAPI statements – yet (watch this space … we’re working on it). To create this system, we had to think about the ‘policy issues’ Shelly refers to in the discussion with Stephen and build guidelines (rules) into how people can use our system, and provide a lot of support to make all of this as easy to use as possible. Have a look at the site and you’ll see what I mean.

These are our first steps to place the individual in control of their learning information (or “data”) and hopefully stimulate them to expect that control in other aspects of their online life.


1 thought on “The data discussion

  1. Pingback: The Role of Community in Learning | Random Access Learning

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