Keeping it Open – what kind of spider is at the centre of our web?

Continuing the theme of Open Education, this week on the MA we’ve been tasked to blog about a technology important to the cause. The remit:

  • Write a short blog post suggesting one additional technology that is important for open education, either from the role of a learner or a provider. The technology can be one that has been significant, or one that you feel is going to become increasingly relevant.What you include as a technology can be quite broad: for instance, it can be a general category (such as social networks), a specific service or a particular standard.
  • In your post briefly explain what the technology is, and then why you think it is important for open education. The emphasis should be on open education in particular, and not just education in general.

As examples we were given some background on Blogs, Links and Embeds, Social networks and VLEs. My course colleagues have gone for additional technologies such as mobile, search engines and open textbooks. I have gone in with the bigger picture, the web itself.

It seems to me that when considering the web as an open technology there are two key questions that need to be addressed:

  1. Prioritising access globally
  2. Ensuring that the web is ‘safe and empowering for everyone’ (Web Foundation, 09-01-20)

I have no solutions to offer but I think it’s worth opening the debate with myself and any others who want to join in.

Prioritising Global Access

The Open Education goals aspire to providing access for all. Yes, this movement has opened access but the discourse on this is very much from a socially, geographically and economically privileged stance. According to November 2019 figures from the The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), still only 53.6% of the world’s population has access to the internet.

(https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx accessed 25-04-20)

The distribution of this access can be seen in the graph below. What isn’t shown on this graph is that growth slowed in terms of new access in 2019. Targets may not be met until 2050. Lovett, CEO of the Web Foundation, warns that “If you are not connected when the majority of your fellow citizens in the world are, you become marginalised in a way that could be more dire and more challenging than perhaps anything we’ve seen before.”

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Internet_usage. Accessed 25-04-20)

If we are to have a genuine conversation about openness, of which access is a guiding principle in all areas, this divide needs to be addressed. Geographic, social and economic restraints remain as significant barriers. In his recent post for the Web Foundation “As internet access proves critical, we are missing targets to connect everyone” (https://webfoundation.org/2020/04/covid-missed-targets/), Carlos Iglesias draws a link between the internet and access to current information. He points out that those most vulnerable to CV-19 are also those most at risk through lack of safe place to isolate, lack of robust health-care systems and an inability to work or study from home. For me this highlighted a key question: what is education? In these times, for billions of people it could come down to the simple act of being able to access life-saving information. Is this open education at its core? A place from which we should aspire to work outwards? From there come the next-step questions…

Iglesias draws on evidence to conclude that we will miss our connectivity targets by decades if progress continues at the current rate. We’ve already missed the UN Sustainable Development Goals for “universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries (LDCs) by 2020. As educators there is little we can do about the infrastructure itself (except perhaps keep shouting about it in the places that count). We can however be aware to ‘mind the gaps’ when creating our resources. A very obvious and simple example, why does the Open University Masters in Online and Distance Education not offer an app supporting full offline access to those with intermittent or hard to access network? This is not exactly hard to achieve and it seems almost insolent on their part to have us studying openness but not ensure full access for all their students. We should perhaps also be constantly asking ourselves if we are all producing resources that can also be mobile or print friendly? Read by screen-readers? Do videos come with transcripts? Do we have an alternative to hand if a student can’t access the format we’ve produced? And how in the world do we manage all that before we’ve even started thinking about the actual content, day in and day out…Probably by invoking the assistance of Ai somewhere in the process.

In an impressive rapid-response to the current CV-19 pandemic ITU formed a new Global Network Resiliency Platform #REG4COVID. This was announced on March 23rd and in place very soon after. The aim of the platform is to ensure that the world, as a single ‘human family’, is given the tools required to provide global robustness to the maximum extent possible during and beyond the crisis. This includes information and infra-structure, but crucially, initially the platform will act as a portal for mass scale open learning through information and resource sharing – on how to enable access. Best practices and initiatives to support telecommunications network resiliency will be shared, and crucially, according to the agency chief “… because time is of the essence, it will give those countries that still have time to prepare an opportunity to learn from what is being done elsewhere…”

ITU present themselves as having “long promoted universal, reliable and affordable connectivity.” Their goal: to continue on this trajectory until everyone is connected. By linking Information Communication Technology (ICT) planning and the UN Sustainability Goals ITU are working to ensure alignment between the development goals prompting me to think about open resources and open education through a different lens. Initiatives, such as the Smart village plan provide case studies of what access might mean in different locations.

I think maybe we need to redefine what terms such as ‘open’ and even ‘education’ might mean in different places. I mean, I’m quite sure that the majority of us on the MAODE, when we think about open education we are framing it from within our own context. Perhaps we need to be asking ourselves if then it is truly open, or do we actually mean ‘open to a specific demographic’ and their specific definition of education. If that’s the case, it’s not open at all as it’s directed at a tiny proportion of the globe. What can we learn from studying initiatives such as the Smart Village project and what does this mean for us when we are discussing technologies to support open education?

Ensuring that the web is ‘safe and empowering for everyone’

To me it seems there is little point talking about openness if we don’t address the issue that the very means by which these resources are accessed is ultimately at the will of corporate or government decisions. This was brought home to me at the start of the pandemic when Facebook and You Tube took the decision to reduce video quality in order to ease the load on the network. It occured to me then that if these ‘heavy load’ platforms primarily being used for recreational purposes appeared to be jeopardising emergency response, access to information or preventing people from working at home, they could be shut down completely. What then of all our networking and so many of our shared resources?

Inevitably, the web and mobile networks are owned by corporations. That means that ultimately they have the power to allow or prohibit access, to use their platforms as they so choose, so where does that leave the whole question of openness? Tim Berners- Lee, originator of the web, is on the case and working to keep the web as open as possible, but he calls on us, the users and contributors to the web to share in that responsibility. In his podcast to mark the 30th anniversary of the web he reflects on what we need to do to ensure the web serves all of humanity. First, he broadly outlines what he sees as the main dysfunctions of the web today:

  1. Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
  2. System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
  3. Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

He goes on to cite, that in just a few circumstances, such as Human Rights and the laws of the sea and aviation, the world has been able to agree on some key global guidelines. He places the governances for use of the web in the same category and states that it should be working for the global good. In order to draw attention to this fact and to begin working towards a more ideal web, a ‘Contract for the Web’ was drawn up in 2019. The content of the contract was agreed by a group of 80, made up of governments, corporations and members of civil society. Access and openness is a key theme of the contract. It is separated into the three areas of government, companies and citizens and anyone can sign to support the underpinning principles. Personally, I was happy first to find this and acquaint myself with the foundations of its concepts, and then to sign. I feel that if we are to become viable educators on the open platform, it’s our responsibility to not only clearly understand the incumbent obligations but also be able to pass these on in a clear and coherent manner. The contract for the web achieves this succinctly and if nothing else has created a focus.

In his anniversary podcast Berners-Lee outlines the key issues for each sector to address. Openness weaves its thread between them. The message is, I feel, so important and relevant I am copying the key points here.

Governments must translate laws and regulations for the digital age. They must ensure markets remain competitive, innovative and open. And they have a responsibility to protect people’s rights and freedoms online. We need open web champions within government — civil servants and elected officials who will take action when private sector interests threaten the public good and who will stand up to protect the open web.

Companies must do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety. Platforms and products must be designed with privacy, diversity and security in mind. This year, we’ve seen a number of tech employees stand up and demand better business practices. We need to encourage that spirit.

And most important of all, citizens must hold companies and governments accountable for the commitments they make, and demand that both respect the web as a global community with citizens at its heart. If we don’t elect politicians who defend a free and open web, if we don’t do our part to foster constructive healthy conversations online, if we continue to click consent without demanding our data rights be respected, we walk away from our responsibility to put these issues on the priority agenda of our governments.

The fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time. Today, half of the world is online. It is more urgent than ever to ensure the other half are not left behind offline, and that everyone contributes to a web that drives equality, opportunity and creativity.

The Contract for the Web must not be a list of quick fixes but a process that signals a shift in how we understand our relationship with our online community. It must be clear enough to act as a guiding star for the way forward but flexible enough to adapt to the rapid pace of change in technology. It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future.”

So what about that spider?

I spent my very early years in Ghana, West Africa, the years that are filled with stories. It just happens that in West Africa those stories often involved a spider called Anansi. Anansi is a key part of the storytelling culture there and he is a cunning trickster – he basically studies his victims’ habits and then uses this knowledge to outwit animals much larger or stronger than himself to achieve his goals. Although very clever, he was often selfish or even cruel. Yet despite his highly dubious character Anansi was immensely popular and I remember his name came up regularly in casual play and conversation with my young school friends. I remember reading somewhere that this is because psychologically we find stories where the ‘small’ person is able to defeat the powerful appealing. This makes sense to me (I also read Brear Rabbit stories about this time, the Western equivalent perhaps) but leaves me wondering what kind of spiders (apart from the Google ones) are populating our web? Have we all turned into aspiring mini Anansis? If I join up the thinking with my previous post on speed and power then that seems highly feasible. It also seems quite possible that those who hold the power of the web are the Anancis of our day, for after all they are tiny in proportion to the size of the population that they hold within their power.

The stories of Ananci have stayed with me all these years and I do think we need to be mindful of how we might be being manipulated in order for these Anancis to get their way. 2019 – the year of the big Data scandals. The year it was brought home to us that internet freedom may not be free. This is nothing new, it just came to our attention. According to Shahbaz & Funk (Freedom House) “a startling variety of governments are deploying advanced tools to identify and monitor users on an immense scale. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2019”

So we thought we’d got that stuff out of the way huh? All dealt with. Have you ACTUALLY checked and reset your Facebook privacy settings since February 1st 2020 when they did their last big update? If not I suggest you head over there and do so immediately. You might be outraged and astonished by the data being held, and it’s not just restricted to what you do on Facebook or even just to what you do online! The onus is on you to uncheck the permissions, not to supply them. The platform designers know human nature well and know that the majority will not do so. Just in case you haven’t, here’s how:

-Facebook settings

-Scroll down to “Your Facebook Information”.

-Click on “Off-Facebook Activity”..

-You can see the list in “Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity”.

To shut it down:

-In the same setting, click on ‘More Options’

-Go into “Manage Future Activity” and turn it off.

-You may want to clear the history as well.

(taken from https://uknip.co.uk/2020/04/16/facebook-have-been-up-to-their-old-tricks-again/)

I was so shocked when I saw what data of mine it had hoarded that I pressed delete before I thought to take a screenshot so I could show you. I tell you, you have to keep a very very close eye on that Anansi in the middle of our web. openness definitely comes with risks. As educators it is our absolute responsibility to ensure that we do as much as possible to mitigate those risks by bringing the web itself into all discussion on openness.

References

Freedom House (2019) Freedom On The Net 2019 The Crisis Of Social Media, Freedom on the Net [Online]. Available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2019/crisis-social-media?mc_cid=a3c6869287&mc_eid=b5cd81a3f0 (Accessed 26 April 2020).

Global Internet usage (2020) En.Wikipedia.Org, [Online]. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Internet_usage (Accessed 26 April 2020).

ICTs for a Sustainable World #ICT4SDG (2020) Itu.Int, [Online]. Available at https://www.itu.int/en/sustainable-world/Pages/default.aspx (Accessed 26 April 2020).

Iglesias, C. (2020) As internet access proves critical, we are missing targets to connect everyone., World Wide Web Foundation, [Online]. Available at https://webfoundation.org/2020/04/covid-missed-targets/ (Accessed 26 April 2020).

International Telecommunication Union (2020) New Platform Will Assist Governments And The Private Sector In Ensuring That Networks Are Kept Resilient And Telecommunication Services Are Available To All, [Online]. Available at https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Pages/STMNT01-2020-global-platform-telecommunication-COVID-19.aspx (Accessed 26 April 2020).

REG4COVID – Policy and Regulatory experiences and best practices that can improve COVID-19 responses (2020) Reg4covid.Itu.Int, [Online]. Available at https://reg4covid.itu.int/ (Accessed 26 April 2020).

Sample, I. (2019) Universal internet access unlikely until at least 2050, experts say, Guardian, [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/10/universal-internet-access-unlikely-until-2050-experts-say-lack-skills-investment-slow-growth?mc_cid=a3c6869287&mc_eid=b5cd81a3f0 (Accessed 26 April 2020).

Smart Village (2020) Itu.Int, [Online]. Available at https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/ICT-Applications/Pages/smart-village.aspx (Accessed 26 April 2020).

Statistics (2020) Itu.Int, [Online]. Available at https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx (Accessed 26 April 2020).

Web Foundation (2019) 30 years on, what’s next #ForTheWeb?, [Online]. Available at https://webfoundation.org/2019/03/web-birthday-30/?mc_cid=a3c6869287&mc_eid=b5cd81a3f0 (Accessed 26 April 2020).

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