Humanism, ethics, and civics, especially in language education.

Sodālitās /soˈdaː.li.taːs/ n.f.: fellowship, companionship, brotherhood, friendship, intimacy; abstr. and concr.

I attended a webinar last Friday on Student Debt and the Future of Higher Education (edit Nov. 30: recording available), featuring very corporate-oriented conceptions of the roles and functions of higher education institutions. Three experts from three different institutions shared their takes: Arizona State University’s Director of Online Engagement Ara Austin, economist Bryan Caplan from George Mason, and information technology and marketing professor Mike Smith from Carnegie Mellon. From each of their professional vantage points, they ostensibly came to discuss student debt, though the primary focus of the conversation ended up being the current and future roles of higher education in America, in terms of the student population conceived as revenue streams. In this post, I summarize the discussion and dispute the underlying, unaddressed assumption that higher education must be run as a business.

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Turns out that Learning Management Systems aren’t as secure as they want you to believe–SQL injection vulnerability is a pretty grievous, novice error to make for company like Blackboard.

The US Department of Education has several online resources regarding the collection of students’ personally identifiable information, and even discusses how online education platforms might collect usage metadata from all of our students–but this doesn’t violate FERPA as long as any shared metadata is not directly linked to identifiable information. So there shouldn’t be any issue with that, unless tech companies start using these data and metadata to create a profile of you, even if you don’t have an account with them.

It’s not a stretch to say that a company like Google could take all of these data and metadata from schools’ Google Apps for Education accounts and match them to personal accounts of people whose personal data match. As long as Google keeps the data for themselves (because only disclosing it would violate FERPA), there are no legal protections for any of us, especially our children, from a company that decides to use these metadata to create psychographic profiles for targeted advertising.

“Oh, so Google can show my A-student ads for colleges, and the C-student can get ads for tutoring? What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that an unscrupulous advertising firm might target students based on psychological traits rather than grades alone (which would be Huxleyan enough). Students whose schoolwork shows a lack of critical thinking, or a reactionary mindset–students who are quick to jump to conclusions just by seeing a headline without reading the whole article (or who don’t bother to read the instructions)–they might be susceptible to the kinds of propagandistic voting campaigns that a company like Cambridge Analytica boasted about.

This doesn’t even touch special education plans, disciplinary records, medical records, or even family information (some of my students’ files have had notes about their parents’ divorce arrangements). We need to start taking students’ data more seriously, otherwise they’ll have to worry about their “permanent records” for the rest of their lives.

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Before getting into my invective against required e-Textbooks and e-Learning platforms, let me set the stage for my perspective. I’m about to teach a university-level introductory French course. Being an adjunct who was hired to fill the need for an additional section of this class (super exciting to see growth in a language department!), I don’t have much say as to what goes on in terms of curriculum for this course. I have essentially no democratic stake in the operation of this department, or therefore the class; my textbook has been prescribed, as well as the blended-learning format of the course. I do have some educational freedom when it comes to assignments and the order in which we cover the material in the textbook.

These course sections should have some sort of uniformity in order to ensure that students proceed to the second semester of introductory French having covered more or less the same content, and so my gripe here is less about my place at the bottom of the departmental hierarchy (n.b.: I have no ill-will towards my colleagues) and more about the impact of certain prescribed curricular decisions on my students. Namely, this 4-credit course consists of three hours of face-to-face lecture (split to meet twice each week), plus one hour weekly of asynchronous online recitation through the textbook publisher’s e-learning portal. Noteworthy advantages of this format include:

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