The 30 business days that FIPPA allows for a public body to provide personal information expired on August 19th, 2016. I reached out to the University Office of Counsel and asked them when I was going to receive my data, and was informed that because of the “large volume of responsive records” that they’re dealing with, they’ve opted to extend the deadline by an additional 30 business days. There’s not too much I can do but continue waiting.
To me, this is another reflection of a broken system. Throughout this process I’ve met resistance because of the measures I choose to exercise in my search to understand what data Connect is collecting and retaining, and I’m interpreted as a meddling, bothersome nuisance. And perhaps I am. But it isn’t my fault, or really even my concern, if there isn’t functional protocol in place to address the requirements of privacy legislation. The system was broken before I got involved; I’m just the person who leaned on it and made it topple.
In the meantime, I’ve been researching the history of Learning Management Systems (LMS), how they came about, why, and where they might be going. (I credit a comment on my last Connect blog post for pushing me in this direction. And I find a great deal of solace in knowing that my criticisms of the LMS agree with larger conversations taking place in the community.) Historically, Universities were the first sites of the internet. In the mid-1990s, people began connecting over the web at Universities all across North America. The first websites were often faculty and student pages, and some of the first Wikis were launched at Universities and encouraged open collaboration between the local academic community and people from around the world.
But, as the internet began to grow beyond University campuses and extend itself into the public sphere, privacy concerns emerged. There was a growing worry that the information being shared by students was too accessible to the public, and there was a sense of fear about where this information was being stored, and what private corporations might be doing with it. Privacy laws formed that protected student data, and Universities were somewhat forced to insulate themselves from the public sphere of the internet. Instead of students and faculty collaborating on public websites, Universities created internal, online spaces that mimicked the external tools available.
The need for these services was two-fold: Universities felt pressure to protect student data and couldn’t actively encourage students to use resources that were privately held and collected personal information; but they also wanted to continue collaborating and using the tools that were created on the external internet. The software market sensed this conflict and offered a solution: The LMS was born. It offered to safely provide the public tools from the external internet on an internal network so that students and faculty could continue collaborating in a safe, sterile, and legal environment.
In theory, it was a great idea. But in practice, the end product couldn’t compete with the resources available on the public internet. How could it? No amount of funding is equal to the drive found in private industry and the innovation of open-source software. The LMS manufacturers made grandiose promises to Universities about the capabilities of their product to encourage learning through data collection and predictive analytics. However, all these features amounted to was creating an environment where students were heavily monitored and policed, not supported or encouraged. And the resources available, which supposedly emulated the public tools created by companies like Google and Microsoft, were watered down, ineffective, and inefficient. The LMS didn’t and doesn’t encourage learning; it only helps to meet privacy regulations.
And so we’re stuck here. Paying ridiculous amounts of money for the license to a product that doesn’t accomplish what’s freely available on the internet, doesn’t accomplish any of the associated learning objectives that might separate it from these free services. Its only benefit is that the data it collects is stored onsite to meet legal requirements. However, if this data is essentially useless, then what’s the point in recording it? Which means: Its sole benefit is entirely lost.
Students are likely already sharing and collaborating through free tools available on the public internet, anyways. Do you have a Google email account? Do you store documents in its Drive component and collaborate with peers using its Document feature? How about forums? I bet that students are more likely to post to Reddit than to any forum available on Connect. And I’d suspect, especially after reading this blog series and understanding the surveillance capabilities of Connect, that students are more comfortable sharing information on the public internet than they are on the LMS. And who could blame them: the LMS’s primary function is surveillance. Weren’t these the exact measures that the LMS was created to avoid?
So with this understanding of where the LMS comes from, I ask: Has it completely lost its purpose? If students are already engaging in these external resources and don’t have concerns over privacy, then shouldn’t Universities return to embracing these technologies instead of competing against them?
The Blog Series
The Connect Exposed blog series documents my inquest into data collection on Blackboard Connect, the difficult process of obtaining my data from UBC, and privacy concerns around the collection of student information.