At the OLC Innovate conference—a conference where I was presenting with Adam Croom about the need to be more thoughtful and careful with student data—I ran into my own issues with unnecessary surveillance and invasions of privacy: Door keepers at the entrance to every session demandingly and sometimes aggressively required us to scan our badges upon entering the room.
It was disturbing.
Now, I’m not naive about any of this. I know that most of the conferences I attend track attendance in sessions using strategies ranging from people who click counters at door (I am OK with this) to RFID sensors in people’s badges (and worse). I was lucky that the barcode scanners used by OLC Innovate door keepers were not cooperating with our badges…and that I remembered to take a few minutes to subtly change the bar code on my badge to make it unscannable. I was able to thwart that system but that’s not always possible. And I shouldn’t have to resort to prankstery tactics to protect myself from tracking.
But the surveillance of our session attendance wasn’t the only disturbing invasion of privacy we experienced. On my first evening in the hotel, I returned to my hotel room to change clothes before dinner. I walked in the door and immediately stopped. Someone has been in my room, I realized. The room had the disorganized air of a room that had not been tidied by housekeeping. No, someone had been in my room to deliver a gift from a protoctoring/surveillance company (apropos, I know). I felt actual fear. Who was in my room? Were they still here? Did they do anything besides leave a cheap plastic water bottle that I didn’t want?
The whole thing—the tracking, the invasion of personal space, and the relentless vendor emails and calls—left a really bad taste in my mouth. So here’s the biggest takeaway I have from the OLC Innovate conference…
DEAR OLC, STOP IT.
Before I go any further, I want to say that this post—while very grumpy—should not detract from the hard work that went into creating a fantastic program at OLC Innovate. The group of creative (volunteer) academics, designers, and technologists who dedicated their time and effort to make sure OLC Innovate was a worthwhile experience deserve nothing less than our gratitude. They are not responsible for the problematic practices I am speaking out against.
My comments are aimed at the Online Learning Consortium entity—and all other academic/educational technology conferences I have attended where these practices have become commonplace. To them, I say…
Because now, instead of thinking about all of the lovely insights and interactions I had at OLC Innovate, I am questioning the handshake between OLC and vendors that put attendees’ data and privacy on the negotiating table. I am wondering what our privacy— our contact information, our private spaces, and our navigation in and out of sessions—is worth to them. I’m wondering why none of these tracking and intervening protocols were made explicit from the start, or made to be opt-in/opt-out.
It doesn’t have to be like this, OLC. The question is, are you ready to try something different? To move away from surveillance and invasion of privacy of attendees? If so, here are some things you might do:
Rethink your tracking protocols: Challenge the idea that gathering more data on participants (INSIGHTS! PATTERNS! TRENDS! DASHBOARDS! MAXIMIZE! RETRIEVE LEADS!) is worth the surveillance of your participants. Does the scanner code approach (or more insipid ones like RFID tracking) really give better insights than manual number-tallying in sessions? I argue that tracking should be minimal, optional, and variable (e.g., providing a range of tracking options, rather than on/off or no options). As Adam Croom suggested, we have given people options with photography at conferences, couldn’t we also do that for conference tracking?
Make the data auditable by attendees: One way to be certain that you’re not collecting/analyzing data in ways that could end up embarrassing you or your attendees is to give attendees the ability to audit the data you’re collecting and how you’re using it. I nearly had a conniption when someone suggested at OLC Innovate last week that the data being collected on session attendance wasn’t really even used for anything. Worse yet, I would definitely have a conniption if I learned that it was being used to track irrelevant or problematic things, like whom I sat next to in sessions or times when I didn’t attend sessions. Giving the ability to audit and have some control over that data would reduce a lot of the uncertainty about what’s happening in the black box of conference surveillance.
Support opt-out of communications and tracking: I was surprised that I did not have the option to opt-out of harassing vendor emails and calls, and that there was no information about what data was being collected and used as part of my participation in this conference. Ok, who am I kidding—I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed. Make opt-out a front-and-center option during the conference registration process, and provide multiple additional opt-out moments. A little agency and control will go a long way in helping participants to trust your data collection practices.
Of course my fear with all of this is that conference organizers will simply adopt tracking mechanisms that are less visible and less likely to irk us enough to counteract them. Or that are so invisible that we can’t counteract them. This terrifying article gives us a sense for what’s possible, what’s already being used: https://ungerboeck.com/blog/monitoring-and-tracking-attendees-new-methods (Pro tip: If you want to sleep soundly tonight, don’t do a search for “tracking attendance at conference presentations.” It’s gross. Don’t do it).
OLC—and all ed tech conference organizers—we’re asking you to move in a different direction. I hope you’re willing to come to the table and have open and honest conversations with us about these issues. If you’re not willing, I ask my fellow conference goers to come together to collectively push back on these unnecessary invasions of our privacy. While we’re at it, let’s have these same conversations about surveillance and invasion of privacy of students at our own institutions.
Kate Bowles, take it home: “To live well with the technology we are developing in universities, we are increasingly going to need the courage and the humility to interrogate its use.”
Update on 4/30/18: The CEO and Executive Director of OLC, Kathleen Ives sent out the following message to OLC Innovate attendees (dated 4/25/18):
“As we get back to work and refocus on our next major conference, OLC Accelerate 2018 in November, I wanted to let you know about one of OLC’s priorities. Like most of you, I came away from OLC Innovate inspired to apply what I learned last week. In addition to all the insights about how the OLC community is driving digital learning innovation (and there were many!), a major takeaway for OLC was a renewed focus on attendee privacy.
As a conference producer, privacy is always a priority. In consideration of recent high-profile cases of data mishandling, along with feedback from our own OLC Innovate attendees about their views on personal data and privacy, I want to let you know that OLC is reviewing all of our data and privacy handling processes. We will be following up with you soon to provide details regarding updates to our policies and procedures, including a transparent view of the data we collect, how we use it, and how you can control the data you share with us.”
This gives me great hope that OLC will take needed steps to adjust their tracking and data collection at future OLC conferences. I also hope that Educause/ELI and other educational technology conferences pay attention and follow suit.