Helping Students Take Control of Their Data and Intellectual Property

Because I ask students in all of my classes to do public-facing work, many people presume I don’t care about (or even don’t think about) student privacy. On the contrary, however, I am deeply concerned about students’ privacy and intellectual property rights. That is why I avoid–when it’s possible to do so–using tools like iCollege and, which deprive students of access to copies of their work when a course is over, require them to share or even relinquish their intellectual property, and which constantly collect and store and sell students’ personal data. iCollege and TurnItIn have their place; they can be extraordinarily useful tools. In the courses I teach, though, they are less useful, and therefore their benefits rarely counterbalance these drawbacks. I also think that, if schools did more to push back against the terms of service pursuant to which tools like iCollege are made available, we could (possibly?) work to minimize these problems and make such digital resources even more useful (and ethical) for pedagogical purposes.

Helping students (and also administrators and teachers) to understand the choices they make when they click “Agree” before installing software or signing up for a new social media service, and helping them to make more informed choices, has become an important component of digital literacy in my classroom. In addition to commercial learning management systems, I’ve also moved away from requiring students to use tools like Dropbox or Google Drive, toward using a modified “Domain of One’s Own” approach, where students use a GSU-provided WordPress site to host their work. On their sites, student get experience with creating and managing their own web content, while simultaneously developing their ability to filter content created by others. They learn to evaluate the credibility, reliability, and relevance of internet sources, and to author credible, reliable, relevant content themselves. When the course is over, or when they graduate from GSU, they can delete their sites, export their work, and if they choose, import it into a new site.

People often take the position that students don’t care about what happens to their work after the course is over, that they don’t care that e-books and course management systems are collecting and monetizing their data. Maybe they don’t. As an educator, I think they should, and I hope that at least some students see their work in my classes as meaningful beyond the immediate context of the class. My thinking on this issue has been heavily influenced by Audrey Watters and the Domain of One’s Own Project. Watters offers a persuasive argument for why we should be giving students ownership over their education data and their intellectual property in her essay, The Web We Need to Give Students. The Domain of One’s Own project at the University of Mary Washington has been another important resource for me.

What might be broadly defined as “information literacy”–learning to evaluate the credibility, reliability, and relevance of internet sources, and to author credible, reliable, relevant online content–is already included to some extent in core learning outcomes for courses such as ENGL1101/1102/1103 and the other upper-division courses I teach. It’s also a component of disciplinary best practices for courses in composition and rhetoric. Developing students’ personal agency and empowering them to take control over their data and intellectual property seems to go a step beyond both departmental and disciplinary practice, though it is definitely a subject of research and the scholarship of teaching and learning in my field. I’m interested in learning from the group if these are issues of concern in other disciplines, and if so, how they are discussed and addressed.

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