Old log fence divides still water

(dis)Owning Tech: Ensuring Value and Agency at the Moment of Interface

Written by
Reviewed by Jesse Stommel and Valerie Robin
ghost trestle” by Jason Carpenter; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Education is big business. In the U.S., over 5% of gross domestic product is earmarked for education. Student debt in the U.S. is estimated to be over $1.2 trillion. The educational technology market is worth over $8 billion. Certainly, a great deal of economic value circulates within and through educational systems. However, schools and colleges also create forms of social, cultural, humanist, and civic value. In a recent CFP, Chris Friend challenges educators to interrogate “[how] critical digital pedagogy [can] add to or ensure the value of an education.” Foregrounding the critical role that autonomy plays within learning, Chris gestures tacitly toward the decreasing level of agency that those most directly involved in learning have in defining the processes and purposes of education on their own terms: “Teachers must choose to create classes and schools wherein students actively create their learning environments and control their own progress.” My interest was piqued.

Like Chris, I share a concern for critical hybrid pedagogy and view the purpose of education as “human enrichment and increased consciousness.” As an intellectual property (IP) scholar, an associate editor with Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy; a member and former chair of the IP Caucus of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (4CIP); and an assistant professor at Colorado State University, I’ve spent a good deal of my early career learning how ownership impacts the type of intellectual property that is created and consumed within schools and universities. Through this work, I’ve come to realize that decisions regarding ownership in educational systems are always decisions about:

  1. who will (and will not) control and define the learning process,
  2. who will (and will not) profit from the ways that learning processes are enacted,
  3. who will (and will not) have access to science and scholarship and the infrastructure necessary for creating it,
  4. who will (and will not) participate in the design of curriculum and assessment and learning spaces,
  5. who will (and will not) profit from the benefits of science and artistry, and
  6. who will (and will not) have opportunities to attend schools and colleges.

Thus, while I strive to enact a critical pedagogy that is built around the type of self-actualization that enables students to realize the civic and humanistic aims of education, I often struggle to achieve the level of autonomy that seems necessary for this work because authority over, and ownership of, education has been distributed to a wide variety of stakeholders — many of whom seem to frame the purposes and value of education in purely economic terms.

Within my home institution, for example, we might sketch a network of stakeholders that consists of government-sector actors such as elected officials and Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE); public-sector actors such as taxpayers, current and potential students, alumni donors; and private-sector actors such as local and global businesses that employ CSU graduates, student-loan financiers like Sallie Mae, designers of tests like Advanced Placement and CLEP, learning management systems like Instructure’s Canvas, educational technologies or iParadigms’ Turnitin, as well as databases like ProQuest and EBSCOhost. A network perspective not only lays bare the various stakeholders with a vested social, economic, and political interest in what happens within schools and colleges, but also the ways agency for what happens within classrooms at my institution extends beyond the students and educators charged with constructing learning. Cultivating environments for agentive learning occurs within educational systems where ownership is increasingly distributed, so students and educators who see the value of humanistic, civic education must do so while negotiating the multiple, competing aims promulgated by other stakeholders.

Consequently, it’s productive to not only think of schools and colleges as sites of learning, but also as marketplaces where goods, knowledge, and services are consumed and produced. It’s reasonable for private-, public-, and government-sector actors to be motivated in different ways. However, there is a fundamental flaw when education systems — however distributed they might be — place the aims of individual profit and privilege before the humanist and civic aims of education. Value is created in educational systems that equitably expand the wealth of human knowledge through science and artistry; produce workforces that can participate within economic systems that create the knowledge, goods, and services that societies consume; and prepare students “to participate fully and meaningfully” as citizens of a democracy. Unfortunately, the civic and humanist aims of education — those of greatest consequence to us collectively — seem to be those which are most readily obscured by and subordinated within current political discourse surrounding education in the U.S. Too often, this discourse reduces (or seeks to reduce) our schools to businesses and education to, as Chris framed it, “a sales transaction.”

Powerful examples of this discourse can be found, for instance, within the destructive “Dear Student,” “Work Harder,” and “Broken System narratives that pit students, teachers, and publics against one another. These narratives are so problematic because they offer scapegoats that draw attention away from the “the ongoing erosion of state support” which has occasioned the legitimate anxiety students and teachers feel about their agency over how learning happens in classrooms. As the operational costs of running and maintaining universities and schools has grown, administrators have turned toward selling off pieces of our educational systems. Some argue that “schools have slowly and steadily improved,” but for many divestment from public education is at the heart of very real issues ranging from the reliance on contingent labor to staff courses and the swelling transfer of the costs of education to students in the form of student debt, to the role that third-party testing and assessment services play within with our schools and the rush to automate instruction through the use of educational technology. Of course, all of these issues deserve sustained critical attention, but this article is particularly concerned with the ways that uncritical adoption of educational technologies adversely impacts the autonomy of students and teachers within the shared enterprise of learning.

Interfaces and Agency

Across the two decades I’ve spent in higher education, I’ve watched certain technologies become a central component of how we enact education. Cell phones and email didn’t meaningfully exist within my life as an undergraduate. Now, as a faculty member, I am tethered to Gmail, Google Drive, Canvas, and Twitter for what seems like hundreds of hours a week. It often seems like a struggle to construct agency amidst the many technological interfaces (many that I haven’t autonomously chosen for myself) that I encounter in both my scholarly and personal life. It is precisely this struggle that has drawn me to computers and writing, a field that long attended to the nexus of interface, agency, and literacy. What I have to say about interface is deeply influenced by Anne Frances Wysocki and Julia Jasken, Cindy and Dickie Selfe, Stuart Selber, Jeff Grabill, Ellen Cushman, Doug Walls, Scott Schopierary, and Danielle Nicole DeVoss, DeVoss, Cushman and Grabill, and W. Michelle Simmons and Grabill whose scholarship reveals how cultural, legal, political, social, and economic values are built into the interfaces.

Indeed, this body of scholarship might be read as examples of the different ways agency and power intersect within distinct contexts. Wysocki and Jasken, for instance, observe that “interfaces are about the relations we construct with each other.” DePew and Lettner-Rust argue that “Interfaces … mediate other power relations between instructors and students.” Similarly, Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel caution that educators might be uncritically relinquishing control of pedagogy to educational technologies such as LMSs and encouraged educators to shift their stances to ensure “pedagogy [is] driving functionality.” However, a great deal of the political work that influences the shape of these interactions occurs beyond the screens. As Cindy and Dicke Selfe contend, interfaces are not merely neutral sites of exchange but locations which reflect dominant power structures:

“[B]orders are at least partly constructed along ideological axes that represent dominant tendencies in our culture…borders evident in computer interfaces can be mapped as complex political landscapes…borders can serve to prevent the circulation of individuals for political purposes, and…teachers and students can learn to see and alter such borders in productive ways.”

What I find most inspiring about this scholarship is that it not only understands that interfaces are built to reflect values that circulate in social, political, and economic spheres, but also that interfaces are designed and built by people who have the agency to change them. Educational technologies, as interfaces, offer students and educators opportunities to discover and enact agency through strategic rhetorical action. Yet, realizing this agency is complex work because “participat[ing] fully and meaningfully in [the] technological activities” that comprise so many aspects of our social, civic, and professional lives requires an increasingly sophisticated array of multiliteracies. Indeed, Selber’s work on computers and literacy suggests that agency is realized through a blended repertoire of functional (ways of doing), critical (ways of knowing), and rhetorical literacies (ways of reflexively, ethically, and agentively combining functional ways of doing with critical ways of knowing). Thus, agentive action not only requires a deep understanding of the value assumptions undergirding the technological interfaces we encounter, but also the technological and rhetorical prowess necessary for enacting changes to the ways we connect and relate at the moment of interface.

Values and Interfaces: What I learned from using Eli Review

To be clear, I am not against buying and selling: this isn’t an invective about whether or not commercial models are to be lauded or shamed or whether they have a place in education. Following Lawrence Lessig, I see value in both sharing and competitive economies, because they have different motivational structures that incentivize different types of work and projects. For instance, there are commercial actors within rhetoric and composition like Bedford St. Martin’s and Eli Review who add value to our field by employing scholars who participate within and enrich our disciplinary conversations, who listen and act transparently, and who make products and technologies that reflect pedagogies that our discipline values as sound and ethical. Eli Review, for instance, was designed by writing teachers who understand that writing is best taught as an iterative and social process, and have built an interface that facilitates peer- and teacher-feedback within learning. They regularly host free teacher development workshops. Moreover, when I wanted to improve how I was using the tool in my own composition courses, Eli partnered me with their Director of Professional Development, Melissa Meeks, who helped me redesign the prompts from the ground up and regularly met with me to check in on how things were going in the course. For me, this level of involvement was uncommon for an educational technology company. It suggested that Eli wasn’t simply designed as an product for purchase, but as a technology with support mechanisms built into both their approach and interface. It was a technology that came with human support so that I could ensure that the tool helped me to scaffold the peer-to-peer and instructor-to-peer interactions that offer students generative experiences writing in our course.

The challenge is that technology designers aren’t always motivated by the same values or the right balance of values. Lawrence Lessig argues that we must strike an ethical and sustainable balance with how we award ownership through copyright because extending monopolistic control of ideas into perpetuity is neither good for innovation nor consistent with the aims democracy. Yet, a great deal of research and scholarly knowledge produced within publicly funded universities is published within journals owned by commercial publishers such as Elsevier, which makes over billion dollars a year in profit. For Lessig, U.S. copyright wasn’t designed as a mechanism to protect unfettered profiteering, but rather a legal protection that placed paramount value on the future accessibility and sustainability of scientific and artistic content because of the central role such knowledge plays within a democracy.

Thus, it’s not surprising that Jeff Grabill, one of the creators of Eli Review, posits that students would be well served by critical pedagogues who attend to the values that are instantiated within interfaces. Pointing toward the increasing role technologies play in learning environments, Grabill carves a careful distinction “between educational technologies (or technologies for) and learning technologies (or technologies with):”

Technologies for automate teacher work. And, if we had more time, I’d tell you about my decade [of experience] in the educational venture capital world where they are out to replace you. [They] replace the teacher, focus on testing, focus on summative feedback, deprofessionalize teacher work, and [they’re] free.

I want to dwell for a minute on free. Academic humanists might be the last people in the world who believe there is something called free. There is no such thing as free. You’re paying for [your technology] — you might be paying for it by making your students give up their personal data, or by giving up your own data, or you may be giving up technical or learning support. But you’re paying for it, and one of the most insidious moves in educational technology in K-12 is schools penchant for free on the surface, which costs them dearly downstream, particularly in the toll it takes on the lives of teachers and lives of students.

Through the practices like mentoring, partnering, supporting, and being responsive, Eli Review has built an interface that informates what teachers and students do. It’s supplemental and it is designed to scaffold and enrich the agency that students and teachers have over the process and products of their learning.

Characteristics of technologies for (automating, replacing, testing, summative, de-professionalizing, “free”) education and with (informing, enhancing, teaching, formative, professionalizing, requiring investment) education

Slide from Grabill’s talk

Conversely, there are “educational technologies” that automate the work of teachers. For instance, iParadigms’ Turnitin employs a rhetoric of fear to turn educators away from, as Rebecca Moore Howard puts it, “pedagogy that joins teachers and students in the educational enterprise [by choosing] … a machine that will separate them,” but also leaches the intellectual property students create within educational systems only to sell it back to schools. Unfortunately, plagiarism detection software (PDS) like Turnitin has been so widely (and uncritically) adopted that members of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), “the world’s largest professional organization for researching and teaching composition,” passed for a formal resolution warning colleagues about the ways that PDS “compromise academic integrity” during their 2013 meeting based a position statement that the CCCC-Intellectual Property Caucus drafted.

Values and Interfaces: What I learned about ProQuest’s Relationship with Turnitin

A well-established body of scholarship within rhetoric and composition explores the ways PDSs violate student intellectual property and adversely position students and teachers. Moreover, PDSs  just aren’t capable of drawing nuanced distinctions between actual plagiarism and the type of patchwriting that commonly reflects writers learning how to master academic literacies like paraphrasing and using citation systems. Consequently, I was surprised when I learned through a series of Twitter conversations that a scholarly company I respected and trusted, ProQuest, had an existing relationship whereby they had provided Turnitin access to content in their databases. (See Stephanie Vie’s “Turn It Down, Don’t Turn It In: Resisting Plagiarism Detection Services by Teaching about Plagiarism Rhetorically” for a rich discussion of the history and arguments surrounding PDSs.) In fact, I had recently provided ProQuest with access to my dissertation. As a member of the CCCC-IP Caucus, I am ideologically opposed to Turnitin, and it upset me that this company might have access to intellectual property I created. Still what really upset me was that relationship wasn’t made transparent when I interfaced with ProQuest’s Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETD) database. I understood that the Library of Congress and the University of Rhode Island, institutions I trust, value ProQuest because they make an important contribution to the progress of science and knowledge by curating their ETD repository. And, because I trusted URI and the Library of Congress to bestow that responsibility with ProQuest, I, in turn, trusted ProQuest.

User setting for Publishing Options: Yes/no choice for “I want major search engines (e.g. Google, Yahoo) to discover my work through ProQuest.”

Users of ProQuest’s ETD interface have the option to allow search engines to crawl their scholarship

I also understood, following the language in the University Agreement statement, that I retained “the rights in copyright for theses and dissertations produced as a part of a University degree” but that I had, “as a condition of the award of any degree, grant[ed] a royalty-free license or permission to the University and any outside sponsor, if appropriate, to reproduce, publicly display on a non-commercial basis, copies of … student dissertations.” I have been revising portions of my dissertation for publication as articles and chapters, so I utilized the embargo option in order to protect my scholarship from the first publication clause. But, after learning that PQ had potentially been sharing my intellectual property with a company that I disavow, I wanted to know more about how PQ grants Turnitin access to content in their database. I wrote to PQ and exchanged correspondence with a number or representatives. During my initial exchange, I learned that PQ considers Turnitin a third party search engine, which I would argue is, at best, a disingenuous way of representing a PDS. They informed me that:

Our records indicate that you did elect to allow third party search engine access however you do have any embargo on your work since the time of submission therefore your work would not have been supplied to Turnitin.com by ProQuest.

Indeed, I did elect this understanding, as PQ’s interface suggested that doing so enables “major   engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo) to discover my work through ProQuest.” As I continued to correspond with various representatives, I was informed that ProQuest “[had] not distributed [my] manuscript to any 3rd party indexer.” Since that time, ProQuest has authored more substantive clarifying language regarding their partnership with iParadigm/Turnitin/iThenticate.

Yet these statements are not built into the actual interface students navigate to make agentive decisions regarding how they share their content. Moreover, some institutions unilaterally compel students to submit work to Turnitin/iThenticate as a condition of granting a degree rather than trusting students and their advisors to produce and ensure the veracity and originality of scholarship. I am thankful that the graduate school at URI did not take this stance while I was a student there. Still, I continue to be concerned about this tweet that Turnitin posted on 8 March 2012:

As this tweet and a press release from 12 March 2012 seem to suggest, it appears that ProQuest has offered Turnitin access to their database. So which is it? Were the authors who uploaded their IP to the ProQuest repository prior to the formation of the ProQuest-Turnitin partnership consulted about whether they assented to share their IP with this third party? Has Turnitin/iParadigms /iThenticate indexed works which they should not have had access to? Interfacing with this technology makes me curious about whether student-authors have agency over who accesses their work and how others might profit from labor that takes place in publicly funded institutions. Examining ProQuest in relationship to the Vanderhye ruling, which held iParadigms’ indexing was legal under fair-use provisions of copyright law, there are notable distinctions to be drawn. Specifically, the ProQuest interface does not make it transparent that copyright holders may be sharing their IP with iParadigms, nor have copyright holders entered into the same legal agreement as students in the Vanderhye cases had when they clicked “I agree” and actively uploaded their content, in turn, providing the indexical database access to their intellectual property. Even if “fair use doctrine protects the transformative uses of content, such as indexing…,” companies like Google offer insights into how agency might be returned to creators who wish to uphold their moral rights:

Even though the Copyright Act does not grant a copyright owner a veto over such uses, it is our policy to allow any rightsholder…to remove their content from our index….

This policy statement reflects that Google’s stance is that they seek to affirm, ultimately, the agency of creators. By adopting a shift in stance towards how PDS are implemented, educators could work toward affirming the agency of student-creators. Rather than using coercive power to force students to submit to PDSs, educators could offer the service to students who wish to use it. Similarly, PDSs could similarly follow Google’s approach by allowing creators to remove content that has been indexed. Offering opt-in and opt-out mechanisms to student-creators demonstrates respect for their decision-making capacity as humans. If the purpose of education is to serve humanist and civic aims, critical pedagogues must work to ensure that the structures through which it is enacted (institutions, classrooms, technologies, databases) should empower the people those structures were designed to serve. Critical pedagogy is about ensuring that learning is grounded in an ethic that serves humanist aims and enriches our communal, civic well being. It creates and protects places where hybridic ways of being, knowing, and doing are possible. Through tactical action, critical pedagogues might adapt how they relate with students during moments of interface, but they must also attend to the ways that pedagogical interface is distributed to educational technologies. Critical pedagogues must work to ensure that the technologies that serve us, serve our aims.

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