Contesting Open Spaces

Clint Lalonde, Open Education Project Manager, BCcampus

I have long been a fan of social media as a tool for professional development. Cultivating a Personal Learning Network (PLN) using social media tools is one of the very tangible ways educators embody networked learning principles. The ability to connect with colleagues from around the globe has been a vitally important component of my professional life, so much so that social media formed the basis of my Masters thesis a decade ago.

But things have changed since then. Like many others, I have a growing sense of unease with the ways in which my data is being collected and used by social media sites.

We have known for a long time that when we use free products like Facebook or Twitter, we become the product. Our preferences and posts are gathered and analyzed by algorithms for the purpose of better targeting advertising to us.

While users of these platforms have been aware of this Faustian trade-off for many years, we are now becoming all too familiar with the increasingly disturbing ways in which our personal data is being (ab)used in complex disinformation campaigns designed to sway not only our opinions, but the opinions of the friends, families and colleagues in our networks. The bots are running the asylum, and we are the inmates.

While recent privacy laws like the GDPR in Europe and the new CCPA legislation in California are good starts, there are still flaws in relying solely on legislation for protection as lawmakers struggle to keep up with the pace of technological change.

In this environment, the topic of openness in the age of surveillance could not be more urgent. How do open networked educators grapple with this inherent paradox of being open when we know that, by being open, we potentially expose ourselves to the various toxic ways in which our data can be manipulated and used against us? How do we, as open educators who believe that there is real value in participating and connecting with others in the network, do so in ways that are both open and yet resistant?

One path may be a return to the very roots of open education: open source software. Educators who believe in the value of open networked learning as I do can start to formulate an exit strategy to wean off commercial social media platforms and onto platforms that are more in synch with the values of open education. For me that means open source technology platforms.

The relationship between open source software and open education is long and rich. Early open educators were deeply influenced by the open and collaborative nature of open source software. Just as groups of programmers realised that releasing their software projects openly created opportunities for others to contribute, build, and improve on their work, open educators in the late 90’s took those same principles and applied them to educational resources. The open education movement was born and, much like the OER’s that began the movement, open education has been revised, reconceptualized and reborn many times until we now have an entire eco-system of open practices spawned from the original OER movement.

However, as open education has continued to grow, the use of open source software to support open educational practices has not seemed to keep pace, and much of what we consider open education today is built on a foundation of proprietary technologies. This includes the ways in which educators connect with each other to build a PLN.

I still want to build and maintain a PLN. A PLN has been at the heart of my own lifelong learning for over 15 years now, pre-dating Twitter and going back to the early days of blogging. I’m invested. But I don’t want to continue building my PLN on platforms that are increasingly at odds with my own professional values as an open educator.

It’s unrealistic to think that anyone should just shut off a carefully curated network that they have spent years building in Twitter, Facebook or even LinkedIn (you know LinkedIn is also doing some stuff with your data too, right? They even have a special site for government to explain how they can “Unlock LinkedIn’s unmatched demographic data on 546M+ global professionals” to better reach and influence them. One of those global professionals is you). So instead of thinking of moving to a new platform as an all or nothing affair, I am thinking of this as a long game, one where I am going to have to inhabit multiple spaces at the same time as I transition to new spaces.

One of the open source spaces I have begun exploring is Mastodon, the open source federated social media platform that can be installed and locally controlled by a group of like-minded educators. Mastodon offers many of the same features of Twitter minus the data mining or corporate control.

Like the development of open educational resources is best done collaboratively, using open source software like Mastodon requires more than a lone wolf approach to be sustainable. Which means options for hosting those solutions that are built on are collaborative and cooperative models of shared technology ownership, like the burgeoning OpenETC community in British Columbia that I have been involved with.

As we begin to frame our discussion about what it means to work openly in an age of surveillance, we need to consider deeply the dissonance many of us feel using platforms that do not reflect our values as open educators. It is a dissonance I know I feel daily.

But there are alternatives. There are different ways we can do things that are more resilient and less reliant on commercial platforms. It will take work. It will take effort. But, first and foremost, it will take a willingness to stop doing things the way we are doing them now and do things differently, and OER20 provides us all a fantastic opportunity to talk about how we can go about doing just that.