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Sunday, February 9, 2020

A Short Note about a Big Problem: Gen. Ed. Humanities at OU


I've written this blog post as a possible contribution to FORUM Magazine at OU; find out more here: @FORUMatOU. Here is their latest call for submissions: DECOLONIZATION: What does it encompass and how can you contribute your experience?


When was the last time you looked at the General Education Humanities requirements at OU? Take a look now; you might be surprised by the language you find there (link to Gen. Ed. Humanities):


Humanities - Western Civilization & Culture
Humanities - Non-Western Culture

This distinction between "Western" and "Non-Western" is bad enough, and even more bizarre is the idea that civilization (one civilization only, mind you; singular, not plural) is found in the West, but not elsewhere. Apparently the only thing that non-Western traditions can offer is culture, not civilization.

It's weird, right? And it's disturbing too, a tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon that indicates a lot of submerged assumptions and prejudices at the heart of the Gen. Ed. curriculum, a curriculum which has not changed since I joined the OU faculty in 1999. (Perhaps someone who has been at OU longer knows just when the current requirements were put in place; I'm guessing back in the 1980s? But that is just a guess.)

And yes, I teach these Gen. Ed. courses. Western and Non-Western.

And every time I have to type those words, I cringe.


"Othering" Language and Domination

Dividing the world up into "Western" and "Non-Western" is a textbook case of othering language, an us-not-them approach in which the "Western we" is the norm, and everything/everyone else is characterized by a lack of Westernness. This conceptualization is an obstacle to the promotion of equity and social justice, something I believe should be at the heart of a General Education project.

One of the purposes of othering language is to demarcate an unequal power relationship, and that is what is going on here in the use of "civilization" with regard to the West, contrasted with a lack of civilization in the Non-West. This is the ideology on which settler colonialism is built, justifying the domination of the supposedly "uncivilized" Non-Western world by the supposedly "civilized" West.

These labels would be of concern at any school, but they are of special concern at the University of Oklahoma, where "Boomer" and "Sooner" make the Oklahoma Land Run into a shibboleth of school pride. [See Lena Tenney's account of the "boomer sooner" resolution sage of 2016.]

Boomer and Sooner are a problem, and so is Western/Non-Western.


What OU's General Education Promises

Now take a look at the General Education homepage; lo and behold, you'll see the language of "Soonerism" enshrined there too:
General Education is at the heart of OU's mission. OU's curriculum is designed to ensure that graduating Sooners have breadth and depth - the fundamental knowledge and skills they need to flourish as individuals and as citizens.
The embedded video describing the General Education program states that OU's "Sooners" will become global citizens as a result of their Gen. Ed. courses; here's a screenshot from the video:


If developing global citizens is the goal, then surely OU should not be teaching those global citizens to see the world in Western versus Non-Western terms.

Yet that is what OU does every time a student fills out their degree checklist, checking off those two courses in Western Civilization and Culture, plus one course in Non-Western Culture.



What to do?

As a Gen. Ed. instructor, I am stuck with these "Western" and "Non-Western" labels; there's nothing I can do to change that. But I can still refuse to let these colonial categories define my work.

In the so-called "Western" course that I teach, Mythology and Folklore, half of the readings would be labeled "Western" (and even that depends on how you want to categorize the Hebrew Bible), while the other half would be labeled "Non-Western" (Middle Eastern, Indian, African, Asian, Native American). I am not going to let the cultural colonialism of the Gen. Ed. requirements define what we do, or don't, read in that course.

In my "Non-Western" course, Epics of Ancient India, I got a big boost from an alternative textbook grant from the OU Libraries to acquire comic books and graphic novels from India to include in the course. (Thank you, OU Libraries!) Building the course around books from India by Indian writers is one way, I hope, that the course can contribute to the goal of global citizenship.

At the same time, it is a very sad thought that I might spend my entire career teaching courses at OU that bear these colonial labels:

Western.... Non-Western....

It's now the year 2020: isn't it about time OU decolonized the Gen. Ed. Humanities curriculum?

I don't know how or when or where that conversation will take shape at OU, but if and when it does take shape, I will be an eager participant!


Canvas Student Survey on Data and Predictive Algorithms

On February 9, I released an opinion poll about Canvas Data and Predictive Algorithms to the students in my three online classes at the University of Oklahoma, and I also designed it so that the form could be used by other students at other schools. Here is the survey:

I will keep that online until Monday, March 9 (which is the middle of our semester). I'll write up the results and share them with Instructure then. There's a form here if you want to sign up to receive the results:

As you can see, this opinion poll reflects my personal concerns (about which I have written extensively at this blog), but I hope it can be useful to others. So, please feel free to share this poll with your students, and also feel free to adapt it to reflect your own context and questions about Canvas data. Melissa Loble at Instructure has said she would like to hear student voices on these topics, so I am glad to have a chance to gather up comments from my students, along with any other students who want to use this as their platform from which to speak.

I am curious to see what my students will say, and I know I am going to learn a lot from their perspectives! Maybe Instructure will find a way to gather feedback from the millions of student users of Canvas; for now, I am just hoping to understand better the perspectives of my own students, and also to share this opinion poll for others who want to hear what students have to say.

This is just a blog post, not a tweet, but I'll add one of my favorite Twitter hashtags/mantras: #AskStudents.



Canvas Data. Be Heard. 
Are you a student? Please share your thoughts.
The survey will be available until March 9 2020.
For more information contact Laura Gibbs:






Saturday, February 8, 2020

LMS, Privacy, and Purpose Limitation: A response to Melissa Loble

On February 5, Melissa Loble, Instructure's new Chief Customer Experience Officer, published a blog post: Data Privacy: Our Current and Future Commitment. Unfortunately, her post does not even mention the possibility of a data opt-out. So, when I got to the end of the post, I had the same reaction as Bram Vantasner:


For those of you who have not followed this long-running discussion about Canvas data, here are some references:
Responding now to Loble's post, I first want to point to the gap between the message she is sending here and the messages coming from Instructure in the context of the Thoma Bravo acquisition. For example, compare what Loble says in her post — "we at Instructure want to do what is right for education" — with this January 19 letter from Lloyd "Buzz" Waterhouse, Lead Independent Director of the Board of Directors of Instructure: "The Board of Directors has one priority: maximizing value for our stockholders."

For some thoughtful comments on this inevitable tension between educational vision and business imperatives, I would urge everyone to read this new post from Brian Whitmer: Instructure's Acquisition is Not What I'm Worried About (February 7 2020).

I personally think it's better to acknowledge the tension rather than to pretend that it does not exist, and there is some serious tension here, which I will explore in more detail below.

Canvas in the Cloud

When Brian Whitmer and Devlin Daley created Canvas as a cloud-based LMS, I'm sure there were many factors that went into their decision to build in the cloud. At the same time, I'm also pretty sure that one of those factors was NOT the collection of massive quantities of data with which to engage in AI research and machine-learning in order to develop and then market predictive algorithms.

What has happened, though, is that because Canvas has always been cloud-based, it has accumulated data in a way that the other major LMS companies have not. I will confess that I was very naive about this: until CEO Dan Goldsmith announced that Instructure had developed predictive algorithm products, it never even crossed my mind that an LMS company would do that. (Yes, I really was totally naive.)

For me, as an instructor, Canvas was just another LMS that I accessed with my web browser in the same way that I accessed Blackboard and WebCT and Desire2Learn with my web browser, all of which were self-hosted at my school. Over two decades of using those LMSes, it never occurred to me to ask where my data ended up. I just assumed somebody somewhere was archiving my course data for legal reasons in the same way that email and other university data are archived for legal reasons. After all, once a course was over, what use could the data even be? (Yes, like I said: I was completely naive.)

But as it turns out, Canvas data are different. Canvas data go into a database at Instructure, where data from all the courses and all the schools are sitting there together in the cloud, just waiting to be turned into marketable new data products. And that is exactly what Dan Goldsmith announced to investors in March 2019, with these hyperbolic claims about DIG (Instructure's data analytics initiative):


I am guessing that many of Goldsmith's claims during that investor meeting were overblown, but it's been almost a year, and so far there has been no substantial clarification from Instructure about how many of Goldsmith's claims about DIG are accurate, and how much was just misguided marcomm.

Canvas and its Purpose(s)

Melissa Loble mentioned the proverbial "elephant in the room" in her blog post, but I would like to invoke a different elephant: the elephant being examined by the blind men. It's an ancient South Asian fable that has now spread around the world, with a Wikipedia article of its own: Blind men and an elephant.

When Dan Goldsmith feels the LMS elephant, it's all big-data and AI and ML.

When I feel the LMS elephant, it's just a clunky tool I use for communicating with students.

And I am sure others have their own take on the LMS elephant, and that means we also have our own take on what LMS data privacy should mean, and that's because we see the LMS as having different purposes. Canvas is both one thing, and also different things, based on what we experience from our own perspectives (instructor, student, Instructure shareholder, etc. etc...).

Speaking for myself as an instructor using Canvas, I think the purpose of data in an LMS should be limited to the courses in which students are enrolled, and any use of data beyond that purpose should be protected by a data privacy policy, requiring permission for reuse beyond that original purpose. (For more about purpose limitation, here are some observations from ICO.org with regard to the GDPR.)

So, no wonder there is conflict here, and it's a crucial conflict for the entire future of the LMS enterprise. I see the LMS merely as an online service to students and instructors for the purpose of conducting a course, while Instructure sees the LMS as a data-gathering mechanism they can use to develop new data products.

And how do colleges and universities view the LMS? That is an urgent discussion that needs to happen on every campus. If and when such a discussion takes place on my campus, I will be fighting hard to limit the purpose of LMS data to the needs of instructors and students within the confines of a course, rejecting the type of predictive data analytics that employ the LMS as a surveillance tool.

I'll stop there because my rule for these blog posts is not to exceed the length of the blog post to which I am replying. Loble's post afforded me the luxury of 1100 words, so I am glad to have had the chance to write more in depth this time, and I will continue to hope, even now, for a data reuse opt-out.


Blind men feeling the elephant:
It's a fan! It's a spear! It's a snake! it's a wall! It's a rope! It's a tree!