Platforms in education: A need for criticality and hope

(Notes from my talk at the Council on Independent Colleges / ARTSTOR Consortium on Digital Resources for Teaching and Research on September 7, 2017. Original talk title: Possible worlds, possible futures: Students galvanized on the web)

What an incredible moment we are experiencing in the United States, in the global geopolitical environment, in higher education. And by incredible, I mean “hard to believe,” not happy happy joy joy. Preparing talks during this time is, as it was with this talk, an exercise in focus. In fact, I have resisted the urge to change the title, description, and content of my talk on a weekly basis, based on what is happening in the world. Here is where I ended up—a mix of what’s on my mind, what’s in my heart, and what I believe about technology in education today.

Every day we learn of a new policy (or retraction of a policy) that impacts education. Last week’s announcement that the Trump administration will cruelly and unjustifiably end the Dreamers Act, DACA, reminds us that our work is so important. And that our work is political, whether we recognize it as such or not. This applies to our use of technology in our classes, as you all have been discussing today and will be discussing the rest of this weekend. Every decision we make about how and what technology we use in our institutions and our classrooms has a significant impact and reflects what we believe about our students, their futures, and the role of higher education in society. We must take that seriously.

This means we must also be ready to educate ourselves and help our students to become educated about how technology and the web are situated within larger economic and social contexts. That is what I want to focus on tonight—describing a context for technology, focusing on educational technology, that may be antithetical to our beliefs about education and learning.

I want to start in the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville, VA.

Like you, I read news stories and accounts of the horrific events leading up to and taking place in Charlottesville, VA, in August. As I read, I found stories about how social platforms, like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and even hosting companies, like CloudFlare and GoDaddy, were working quickly to shut down hate groups who were using those platforms to organize and spread their message, like the white supremacists had organized before Charlottesville. There is a lot to unpack in these articles, but I want to focus on one article in particular, that came out in the New York Times Magazine.

Author John Herman described the various actions taken by platform companies, like Facebook, AirBnB, even Spotify, to end hate groups’ use of their platforms. He says, “The platforms’ sudden action in response to an outpouring of public grief and rage resembles, at first glance, a moral awakening and suggests a mounting sense of responsibility to the body politic. You could be forgiven for seeing this as a turning point for these sites, away from a hands-off approach to the communities they host and toward something with more oversight and regulation.” Herman describes how that perspective misses the contradiction that underlies web-based platforms, that they describe themselves and operate as a democratic public sphere, touting the importance of free speech and assembly, but are operated/controlled/monetized by private companies, indebted to private interest. He goes on to talk about how alt-right organizers and hate groups have been able to take advantage of that contradiction in ways that make the platforms bolster their messages of hate, rather than squash them. Herman is right. Platforms, which are often the way we enter and access the web on a daily basis, have played a huge role in these movements because they were actually designed to allow them. He wrote:

“The recent rise of all-encompassing internet platforms promised something unprecedented and invigorating: venues that unite all manner of actors — politicians, media, lobbyists, citizens, experts, corporations — under one roof. These companies promised something that no previous vision of the public sphere could offer: real, billion-strong mass participation; a means for affinity groups to find one another and mobilize, gain visibility and influence. This felt and functioned like freedom, but it was always a commercial simulation.” [emphasis mine]

Herman’s article is a reminder of the nature and orientation of the web, and the platforms and services that comprise and manage our access to that web.

The internet isn’t a utopia, a digital public sphere, unencumbered by the values that the humans who build, manage, and own that web bring to it. We might be told that it is by the companies who want us to use their web-based services. No, the platforms of the web are contradictions and tensions between public and private, with huge impacts on our labor, privacy, and social values and mores.

The platforms we use range from cloud hosted software, engines, tools, and databases, like Google Drive, Ancestry, YouTube, the Learning Management System, the online textbook, Shared Shelf, to socially oriented platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. The term “platform” in itself is a contested term (particularly as you think about how it’s used to deny responsibility – as AirBnB and Uber have done to avoid legal and policy strictures). We could talk all night about various perspectives on that term. I won’t do that to you. BUT while we might use the term platform to represent a wide range of things, we can think of platforms as shaping the way we do things on the web, the way we engage on the web. The term platform doesn’t necessarily describe (or no longer describes) the technology specifically, but it now signals a mechanism for interacting, communicating, receiving or sharing content, and selling on the web. In Tarleton Gillespie’s article on the politics of platforms, he quotes Bourdieu saying that platforms “sanction and sanctify a particular state of things, an established order, in exactly the same way that a constitution does in a legal and political sense of the term.”

And of course platform providers are in it for something. A report by MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative highlights that the “predominant business model for platforms on the Web [is] user-targeted advertising.” For that to work, platform providers have to collect and consolidate a whole bunch of data on us. The platforms through which we connect to the web offer us access to services, to other people, in exchange for our data and our labor. YouTube’s funding model is almost entirely ad-based, and those ads are built on the backs of our data and our labor. As Chris Gilliard says, platforms are extractive, and will succeed if they can get us to give our data and/or our labor willingly and with great enthusiasm. Some platforms prod our enthusiasm by jolting us with the buzz we get when something we do gets Liked, retweeted, goes viral–an affirmational process that keeps us coming back for more. Mike Caulfield wrote, “the recent technologies we use for the web bear more in common with slot machines than books. They are primed to keep us clicking, watching, and pulling-to-refresh, ever desirous to find the next new thing that everyone will be posting and tweeting.”

We might like to think that we platforms we use at our institutions are different. After all, they are focused on the greater good of education, right? Unfortunately, I think largely the answer to that is no, they’re not different. They may not be driven by ad-based revenue, but they often use data as the driver for revenue streams (e.g., services that provide “more data” and “more personalization”). It’s time for us to better understand the platforms we use at our institutions, in our research, in our classrooms. Especially in a time when we’re constantly being told that technology and the web are going to disrupt education—and we’re bombarded with stories about MOOCs, and Starbucks classrooms with their teachers who are platform ambassadors, and VR platforms, and…and…and…

Mike Caulfield has an excellent series on Educause’s New Horizons column (which I recommend that you read), that aims to respond to the question we too often see in these publications and white papers:

Can the web save higher education?


You’ve seen this question before, yes? You’ve maybe even seen the claim that technology and the web will disrupt education, yes? You’ve seen the inane Starbucks classroom article, yes? You have seen platforms get sold as the next new thing to revolutionize education. These are the narratives that dominate conversations about technology and the web in higher education.

Let’s ignore for a moment that this question presumes a brokenness that turns out to be a pretty convenient narrative for those seeking to profit from the disruption of higher education. Let’s just look at the question of the role the web plays in higher education. Let’s think about it in terms of platforms.

I read too many articles as I was preparing for this talk that touted the power of platforms, the promises of platforms, to disrupt higher education. I’m not going to cite them, you can find them easily enough. There are plenty. One even celebrated the rise of “platform thinking” in higher education.

The promises of platforming in education sound an awful lot like the promises of platforms of the web. A democratic sphere that brings people together, without much care and attention given to the kinds of concessions we make to move that forward. To the dangers this brings to our students. This happens from the institutional level, like my colleague’s school who is considering paying many thousands of dollars for what amounts to surveillance-based advising tools, to within the individual classroom. I have participated in too many conversations about digital in the classroom that started with the question of what platform to use.

The promises of platformed education keep driving us forward, especially now that educational technology is a booming business. And despite any concerns, suspicions, uncertainties about why and how we bring technology to higher education, many institutions, programs, and classrooms are welcoming platforming in some pretty scary ways, and justifying them with some pretty scary language.

Curtin University in Australia touted its initiative to become a living “data-gathering laboratory” by installing high resolution cameras around its campus buildings, along with video and data analytics software to “crunch” all of that tasty data.

“Currently focused on the doorway of every lecture theatre, cameras record students as they enter, matching their faces to university records. It’s a way of checking attendance, Roscarel explains. The university can identify students who may be falling behind, and present them with options for counselling or tutorial assistance.

In the future, the system will identify students who live only kilometres from each other and drive to attend classes around the same time.” [emphasis mine– also, this is at the point in the article when someone inevitably says or tweets “it’s like uber for education” and a part of my soul dies]

Here is an initiative at Glasgow University to “monitor workspace usage” of their graduate students by installing these Occup-Eye monitors. Without their knowledge or consent. Oral Roberts University asked (at least they asked, huh?) students to share biometric FitBit data as part of a curricular wellness requirement. FitBit data was sent to the Learning Management System to show students’ progress on that requirement. I could share example after example after example (don’t even get me started on K-12).

WHY? Why would they do these things? I picked some pretty scary examples. From out here, it’s easy to judge, but in there, in those universities, someone had to believe something that made them decide that whatever those platforms and data streams could provide was better than the alternative, was more valuable than student consent, student privacy, student agency. And these are easy cases to point out but I guarantee you that if we look closely at our own institutions, we will see versions of these decisions made there, too.

Many of the platforms we use, whether educational in nature or not, have normalized the rules of those platforms. They have normalized surveillance. They have normalized exchange of labor and data for services, for access. They tells us that those data are needed because, with it, platforms can personalize to us. With your data, we can ensure that you get tutoring when you need, or a rideshare, or the right workspace, or that you’re healthy.

Conversations about the role of the web and technology in education focus on unbundling, on efficiency, on effectiveness of education based on proxy indicators. They emphasize the power of platforms, couched in terms of personalization and savings for students. But these conversations rarely identify the trade-offs, the vulnerabilities, the problems, the limitations of such intrusions. Rarely is the extraction model of these platforms, as Chris Gilliard calls it, questioned.

As Kate Bowles beautifully wrote:

“We have built the extractive technology to track students minutely. We can continue to invest in improving its efficiency and extending its range. We can boast and promise and envision the seamless world in which human gesture is all the window we need into human thought. We can forget everything we know about the history of surveillance and social vulnerability.

Or like the other mining industries in our world economy, we can start to think ahead to the risks and consequences of carrying on like this. This future is not inevitable, and our concerns are not naïve… Counting students in and out of lecture theatres is not trying to improve student life or learning. It’s searching for solutions that will contain the labour cost of actually listening to students about why they come to lectures, or don’t.”

This is the world we are creating at our universities and colleges, but it’s not the world I want to create. I think many of us, when we became researchers and educators, did not dream of a day when our movements were tracked, associated, and used without our consent. We did not dream of the platforms we use being in contradiction with what we believe about education, about students, about their futures.

Setting aside the hubris of what these platforms purport to do with our students, in our classrooms, in higher education—with data that reduces students to series of observable data and gives us very little actual insight into what actually motivates and is important to our students—let’s just think for a moment of the risk. I don’t think any of us hoped that engaging with education would put students at risk. But it does. Every day.

Audrey Watters, who has written a lot about the platforming of education on her site Hack Education, wrote about the risks of educational platforms, saying:

“The risk isn’t only hacking. It’s also the rather thoughtless practices of information collection, information sharing, and information storage. Many software companies claim that the data that’s in their systems is their data. It’s questionable if much of this data – particularly metadata – is covered by FERPA. As such, student data can be sold and shared, particularly when the contracts signed with a school do not prevent a software company from doing so. Moreover, these contracts often do not specify how long student data can be kept.”

And, if you think about recent developments in national policy around education, or immigration, such as the recent announcement of the revocation of DACA, we have to realize that there is no such thing as harmless collection of data. Or benevolent collection of data. Much of what we collect could be used in ways we do not want it to be used, to harm or imperil our students.

This disproportionately affects our most vulnerable students. Low-income students, students of color, LGTBQ+ students, students who are immigrants…their data are most at risk to surveillance, discrimination. And many of our vulnerable students are less likely to have experience with digital literacy skills.

There is so much risk to our students. But not only that. What are we teaching students about their world, their futures, their agency when we push them thoughtlessly onto platforms? When we require their labor and data as inputs to an educational experience, and monitor proxy notions of their academic outputs, all as evidence that education has happened? As Chris Gilliard said, not only does this normalize for students an acquiescence to what the platform wants, but it limits our imagination for what’s possible. It limits students’ agency and what’s possible when they truly understand what is really going on. This is the pedagogy of platforms.

So when I think back to Mike Caulfield’s question and I look at what’s being done in higher education today…

Can the web save higher education? Can platforms? My response? NOPE.

Does this mean we stop everything? Get tech out of education? Stop having these conversations this weekend? No. Our role is to know better and then to do better. Our job is to create alternative futures.

I do not promote despair as a response to all of this, though sometimes I feel despair. Let us not despair. Ultimately, I am hopeful. This talk is hopeful. Though the probable futures that we see ahead of us feel dark, there are other possible futures, as Noel Gough wrote:

“Since one purpose of exploring futures is to improve upon past and present policies and practices, we should seek to elucidate preferred futures by imagining and exploring the implications of possible alternatives rather than by choosing among those alternatives which might now seem most probable.”

He goes on:

“But futures exist in human minds and, thus, in an objective sense they are never ‘out there’ but, rather, are always here, now. Recognising that futures are components of present action and existence liberates the critical and creative imagination. It allows us to explore longer time frames than those usually dared by empiricists and, unlike those who are concerned with prediction and control, to explore possible futures without colonising them. Thus, the types of futures study which can expand the horizons of education are, perhaps paradoxically, located firmly in our present consciousness, in critical reflection on the concepts, values, meanings, images and metaphors that we use to navigate our ongoing journey through time.”

That’s what hope is. A critical consciousness that values and works toward possible futures that are different from the probable futures we see ahead of us. In Pedagogy of Indignation, Paulo Freire wrote: “…all liberating practice—which values the exercise of will, of decision, of resistance, of choice, the role of emotions, of feelings, of desires, of limits, the importance of historic awareness, of an ethical human presence in the world, and the understanding of history as possibility and never as determination—is substantively hopeful and, for this reason, produces hope.”

Later, in Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he wrote: “hopelessness paralyzes us, immobilizes us. We succumb to fatalism, and then it becomes impossible to muster the strength we absolutely need for a fierce struggle that will re-create the world. I am hopeful, not out of mere stubbornness, but out of an existential, concrete imperative.” “One of the tasks of the progressive educator, through a serious, correct political analysis, is to unveil opportunities for hope, no matter what the obstacles may be.”

We must both hope for and work for those possible futures. Hope is, after all an act of resistance.

It is with this vision of hope, and the power of action driven by hope, that I want to wrap up this talk with a few ideas. If there are other possible futures, if we hope that there are possible futures, what can we do to work toward those futures?

First, a couple of don’ts:

  • Don’t buy into the hype. Platforms will try to persuade you to believe in what they’re selling. Don’t unquestioningly use the platforms your university/college provides. Be part of conversations about the platforms we’re bringing into our students’ lives.
  • Don’t advocate that all students should be required to participate on the open web. I think I used to believe they should, but we have to recognize that too much of the “open web” isn’t open at all. Think very carefully about where students will need to engage on the web and how to do so in a way that gives them more agency.
  • Don’t hide from this. Not engaging is really not an option. That doesn’t help students. Our job is to demythologize, to raise consciousness, not to shy away from. That’s what hopelessness looks like.

More important than the don’ts, here are some dos:

(1) Engage with strategies that give students voice and agency in their use of digital platforms. Henry Giroux, writing about Paulo Freire’ work said: “Education as a practice for freedom must expand the capacities necessary for human agency… In other words, critical pedagogy forges an expanded notion of politics and agency through a language of skepticism and possibility, and a culture of openness, debate, and engagement – all those elements now at risk because of the current and most dangerous attacks on higher education.”

This call for student agency is at the heart of Middlebury’s Domain of One’s Own initiative and I know that many institutions represented here tonight are exploring or deploying domain of one’s own at their institutions. Our goal is to give students space that they control. It’s theirs. They can build on it without worrying about who is running their platforms. They are.

Audrey Watters says that when you give students and faculty their own domains, they “can start to see how digital technologies work – those that underpin the Web and elsewhere. They can think about how these technologies shape the formation of their understanding of the world – how knowledge is formed and shared; how identity is formed and expressed. They can engage with that original purpose of the Web – sharing information and collaborating on knowledge-building endeavors – by doing meaningful work online, in the public, with other scholars. That they have a space of their own online, along with the support and the tools to think about what that can look like.”

And yes, you can build courses on these student spaces. We have built courses that aggregate student work from across their domains. Lora Taub-Pervizpour is doing that with her Archiving Protest course at Muhlenberg. She is such a lovely person—I encourage you to talk with her and learn more about what is driving her course.

Mike Wesch at Kansas State University is running a beautiful courses, Anth 101, is running a course on his own platform, via this same kind of infrastructure. What I love about it is that he has made it easy for other faculty and students to join in various ways, to participate and learn in various forms of community, but they don’t need to sign up with a big company. It’s just a site he runs.

(2) Place digital literacy —critical digital literacy—at the core of our work. This means from individual courses using ARTSTOR/Shared Shelf, all the way to broad curricular initiatives. It is our imperative to educate ourselves and our students better. These digital literacy initiatives can’t stop at “how to use tools”. Digital literacy should teach students what underlies the web, who owns, controls, and gains privilege from that. How the web enacts and exacerbates social practices and privileges. And how to resist. Digital literacy as resistance is my new favorite thing.

Talking specifically about social media, Benjamin Doxdator writes: “As an act of resistance against the way social media is designed to capture us in feeds and bubble us with what we already ‘like’, we need to teach our students how to read widely and deeply, encourage them to be curious and open-minded about the world, and to reclaim the act of listening to other people.” In other words, digital literacy should be about resistance to the behaviors platforms expect us to undertake.

Mike Caulfield is doing some great work on this, and I encourage you to read his blog at and to read about the Digital Polarization project he is doing with the AASCU. What I love most about this project is that it embodies what Paulo Freire called “problem-posing education.” That’s education that encourages awareness with learners about forces that shape their lives as part of helping them to become liberated to take on the forces that oppress them. Not only does this provide better and more accurate information inputs into the platforms, but it gives students a whole lot of agency.

The conversations can’t stop at “look at this cool digital literacy information we’re providing. Conversations should also include, what’s missing? Who decided what goes here? Who gets a voice in this platform? What is privileged? That’s the critical piece of digital literacy and, again, I encourage you to look at what Lora Pervizpour-Taub is doing with Archiving Resistance.

(3) Advance conversations about educational institutions’ responsibility to provide Digital Sanctuary to students. I recently wrote an article for Mike Caulfield’s Educause Review New Horizons series about the need for universities and colleges to rethink our approach to technology overall. You can read the article here.

Importantly, we need to work with students to take action–not just to accept the way things are. Chris Gilliard wrote: “It’s important to ask: What would the web look like if surveillance capitalism, information asymmetry, and digital redlining were not at the root of most of what students do online? We don’t know the answer. But if higher education is to ‘save the web,’ we need to let students envision that something else is possible, and we need to enact those practices in classrooms.” We need to provide a sanctuary where students can envision and enact other possible futures.

I want to return for a moment to the news story I described earlier, written after the Charlottesville protests. “This felt and functioned like freedom, but it was always a commercial simulation.”

Heart breaking words. Despairing. Hopeless.

That’s not us. At least, it shouldn’t be. Education is the practice of freedom, not a commercial simulation. It should be. Paulo Freire wrote: “To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity.”

“Whereas banking education anesthetizes and inhibits creative power, problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality. The former attempts to maintain the submersion of consciousness; the latter strives for the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality.”

Let’s get to work.

Featured image for this post by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

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