Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Tactics of persuasion

In 2007, I wrote some notes on tactics of persuasion. Given the amount of disinformation at large today, it could doing with another airing, though some of the examples are dated. (Note: The 'DDM' acronym refers to digital decision making - not artificial intelligence but decision making in sociotechnical systems).

As well as being aware of the agenda of the various stakeholders and their relative power base, it is important to be familiar with the kind of tactics people and organisations use to persuade us of the legitimacy of their point of view.  The following is a list of some of the common tactics to look out for.[27]

Extrapolating opposition argument to the absurd and then refuting the absurd 
This is also known as the ‘straw man’ approach – create a straw man, something which you can pretend represents your opponents’ position, and knock that down. President Bush’s declaration that anyone who opposed his actions in the wake of the attacks of 11th September 2001 was a supporter of terrorism is a classic example:
“Either you are for us or for the terrorists.” 
This has been one of the most important oratorical tricks in the president’s armoury in his time in office. It has enabled him to take a range of actions including invading Iraq, legalising torture[28] and domestic surveillance that would arguably have been more difficult without the aid of painting his opponents as ‘soft on terrorism.’

Appealing to emotion and prejudice 
If someone tells us a story we want to hear, we are more likely to believe it. There are a huge number of ways of using this tactic. One example is appealing to nationalism, as in the following example from Jack Valenti, the President of the Motion Picture Association of America, in his testimony to a congressional sub-committee, on the ‘Home recording of copyrighted works’ (i.e. the use of video cassette recorders) in 1982.
“The US film and television production industry is a huge and valuable American asset. In 1981, it returned to this country almost $1 billion in surplus balance of trade. And I might add, Mr Chairman, it is the single one American-made product that the Japanese, skilled beyond all comparison in their conquest of world trade, are unable to duplicate or to displace or to compete with or to clone. And I might add that this important asset today is in jeopardy. Why?... Now, I have here the profits of Japanese companies, if you want to talk about greed. Here, Hitachi, Matsushita, Sanyo, Sony, TDK, Toshiba, Victor, all of whom make these VCRs. Do you know what their net profits were last year? $2.8 billion net profit.”

Labeling or ghettoisation of interested groups
Group all opponents under one general heading. Once there, they can be labelled, on a spectrum from ‘lunatics’ to ‘nice people who just do not understand.’ Then conclude that their arguments are not worth taking into consideration because they are at best ill-informed.  There is a whole range of ways of using this tactic.  If scientists agree on an inconvenient truth like global warming or evolution they are intellectual snobs who think they know better than the rest of us.  Conservative Christian advocates of the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in science lessons in the US are very good at this.[29] One of the central themes of this book is the value to be gained from experts and ordinary people working together. The intelligent design debate is good example of ordinary people making what I believe is a bad judgement call, in defiance of contrary scientific evidence and advice.  Their values and beliefs lead them to reject the scientific theory of evolution in an attempt to promote their own model, intelligent design, of how life came into existence.[30]

Balancing act
Modern journalistic practice of reporting that there are two sides to every story,[31] in an apparent effort to appear balanced, can result in all kinds of quacks getting a media platform.  [Yes, I plead guilty here to using a denigrating label]. If someone says the moon is made of cheese on a slow news day, the headlines will say ‘opinion divided on the composition of the moon.’
Deborah Lipstadt [32] provides an especially stark example in the media tendency to legitimise the views of people who deny the holocaust took place, in spite of the overwhelming mass of incontrovertible documented and eye witness evidence of the Nazis’ atrocities. Lipstadt refused all media offers to ‘debate’ the reality of the holocaust with holocaust deniers, since it would just present these people with a public platform in which their point of view would be considered to be of equal value.
Unfortunately an expert backed by solid evidence but with poor communication skills can fail to influence a DDM situation, when faced with someone who has a poor understanding of the evidence but a strong agenda and good communications skills.

Using jargon to confuse
With DDM being such a complex subject, any debate about the design, deployment or regulation of information systems is open to this tactic. For example: ‘You will, of course, understand that the DRM or TPM anti-circumvention measures in the UK implementation of EU directive 2001/29/EC on copyrights and related rights in the information society, the EUCD, were a direct result of our international obligations, rather than something we would have chosen to write into UK law of our own volition.’

Making appeals to 'experts' 
I refer to Bruce Schneier, James Boyle, Kim Cameron and others throughout this book as experts. A reader, who is unfamiliar with these individuals or their areas of expertise, may just be taking my word that they are indeed experts.  Very often media reports quote named and un-named ‘experts’ in support of their assertions, though, and it can be well worth checking the credentials of these people.

Using sarcasm, innuendo, denigration and other forms of humour to belittle opponents
It is easier to get a low opinion of the opposing advocate if you are funny – the humour makes it easy for the audience to like you and diverts attention from the substance of your argument.

The dominant metaphor 
George Lakoff [33] teaches that metaphors are the mental structures that shape the way we see the world.  If someone tells us a story through appealing metaphors and language we are more likely to accept their point of view. By the same token, when Richard Nixon went on TV and said “I’m not a crook,” immediately everyone believed he was a crook.  It is also like telling someone not to think of an elephant. No matter how hard you try after someone has said this, the image of the elephant will come into your mind.

Using rhetorical questions 
If you get your audience to subconsciously supply the answer invited by the question, they become more receptive to the views that follow as a consequence of the answer. To appreciate this, test the effect of taking the opposite answer to the one implied.  The wonderful BBC comedy series Yes Prime Minster gave a classic illustration of this when Sir Humphrey Appleby [34] explained to Bernard Woolley [35] how to fix a survey:
Sir Humphrey: “Well Bernard you know what happens. Nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously you want to create a good impression. You don’t want to look a fool, do you?”
Bernard: “No.”
Sir Humphrey: “No. So she starts asking you some questions. Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?”
Bernard: “Yes”
Sir Humphrey: “Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?”
Bernard: “Yes”
Sir Humphrey: “Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our comprehensive schools?”
Bernard: “Yes”
Sir Humphrey: “Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?”
Bernard: “Yes.”
Sir Humphrey: “Do you think they respond to a challenge?”
Bernard: “Yes.”
Sir Humphrey: “Would you be in favour of re-introducing national service?”
Bernard: “Y… oh, well I suppose I might be.”
Sir Humphrey: “Yes or no?”
Bernard: “Yes”
Sir Humphrey: “Of course you would, Bernard. After all you’ve told her you can’t say no to that. So they don’t mention the first five questions and they publish the last one.”[36]
A variation on the rhetorical question is the use of words and phrases which suggest that the audience should accept without question, e.g. ‘Obviously...’ or ‘It is clear that we all agree...’ 

The sound bite 
It is very hard to find simple responses to counter established rhetoric. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” for example.*  You could try “how much do you earn” or “have you got curtains or a lock on your bathroom door” but they do not have the same effect.  Likewise “If I am not doing anything wrong, then you should not be watching me”; “Everyone has something to hide because everyone is entitled to privacy”; “Those engaged in the surveillance get to decide what's ‘wrong,’ and they keep changing the definition”; “You might misuse my information”; “I don't have anything to hide. But I don't have anything I want you to see, either”; “The government is sticking its nose into my business without a reasonable excuse”; and so on. It is an uneven playing field, rhetorically speaking – the rhetoric is stacked against the nuanced but more complete argument or explanation.  In a world of short attention spans, if you have to explain, you are losing the argument.
Presenting evidence or apparent evidence to make it appear to point to a particular conclusion
This includes using carefully selected evidence, while omitting contrary evidence.  In the UK government consultation on the proposed ‘entitlement card’ in 2003, about 6000 people indicated opposition to the idea and about 2000 were in favour.  The government at that time presented the results by saying that most people were in favour of the scheme by a ratio of 2 to 1. They later justified this by saying they had counted the 5000 or so who had expressed their opposition to the scheme via the Internet as a single vote against the scheme. David Blunkett, Home Secretary at the time, dismissed the people who used the Net to object as a vocal minority of civil liberties activists.  The government then commissioned a survey, the results of which suggested 80% of the population were in favour of ID cards. They have been quoting this survey ever since, in spite of a lot of evidence showing a huge drop off in support for the system.

Taking what someone says out of context
People regularly take quotes from religious texts like the Koran or the Bible out of context to justify their behaviour.  George Bush was vilified by critics for describing ten months of violence following the 2005 elections in Iraq as “just a comma” in history.[37]

Avoiding giving evidence whilst suggesting that evidence is being given
Put out a vague policy statement, saying the details will come later, then when asked about the details at a later date claim all the details were clearly included in the original policy statement and there is nothing further to add.

Non sequitur – ‘It does not follow’
This involves drawing an illogical conclusion from sound data. Since the data are credible the conclusion which follows closely is also accepted. The subtle exponent of the art will embed the illogical conclusion between two logical ones. An example is the government’s stance on the UK national identity system. It will be compulsory for everyone to have an ID card. Yet it is claimed that the card cannot be considered compulsory, since it will not be compulsory to carry it around all the time. 

Repetition of a claim, periodically and frequently, over a long period of time can often lead to general acceptance of the claim as fact, even though it may have been discredited on numerous occasions. This is a tactic used extensively by ‘historical revisionists’ like those who deny the existence of the holocaust. [38] In chapter 8, I look briefly at the repeated efforts to introduce a software patent directive in the European Union.  Those in favour of such a policy merely need to keep re-introducing it periodically over a sustained period.  Those who oppose such a policy need to be alert and mobilise effective opposition to every attempt to implement such a policy. Those with the most stamina get their way in the end.

Corporate, civil society or politically funded think tanks 
These institutions present an alternative to traditional academic and scientific peer review.  Researchers publish the required results.  Ordinary people find it hard to tell the difference between real research and advocacy research and the media rarely make the effort to distinguish or understand the difference between these when reporting on particular findings.  Increasingly, research in universities is commercially sponsored.[39] A simple question which is always worth asking is: who paid for the research?

This is the public relations trick of creating illusory grass roots campaigns.  Public relations companies acting, for example, on behalf of the energy, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries and political parties have been doing this for decades.[40] The idea is to send lots of letters or emails purporting to come from ordinary people to politicians or newspapers in order to make it appear that there is significant feeling about a particular issue.  There is a huge industry engaged in buying and selling personal data for commercial and political exploitation of this sort.  At the simplest level these details can be obtained from the voting register or the register of births and deaths.

*I would just note that the "nothing to hide" sound bite is particularly poisonous and should be refuted at every conceivable opportunity. It is based on two gigantic false assumptions -  
1. that privacy is exclusively sought or needed by evil people wanting to hide nefarious deeds and intentions. It is not. 
2. that destroying privacy will solve the complex socio-technical-economic-environmental-justice-immigration-terrorism-[choose your issue] problem/mess of the day. It has not and will not.
Never, ever accept "nothing to hide..." as the basis for framing a debate.

These tactics of persuasion are an extract from Chapter 6 of my book Digital Decision Making: Back to the Future, Springer Verlag [2007].

27 This list is adapted, with the kind permission of the Open University, from my Open University course, T182 Law the Internet and Society: technology and the future of ideas, which is fairly heavily focused on intellectual property and digital technologies.  The course is based on Larry Lessig’s book The Future of Ideas (Random House, 2001).  Both Jessica Litman in chapter 5 of Digital Copyright and Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite in chapter 3 of Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy do a terrific job of outlining the long term process of changing public perception of what intellectual property is about.
28 See The Torture Debate in America Edited by Karen Greenberg (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and the Balkanization blog at
29 For a particularly good collection of essays dissecting their position see Intelligent Thought : Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement Edited by John Brockman (Vintage, 2006)
30 Incidentally, whether or not you believe in God, is it seriously beyond the bounds of possibility that He might understand enough science to work with evolutionary processes?
31 And usually only two sides.
32 See Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory by Deborah Lipstadt for an especially stark example of the media tendency to legitimise the views of people who deny the holocaust took place, in spite of the overwhelming mass of incontrovertible documented and eye witness evidence of the atrocity. Lipstadt refused all media offers to ‘debate’ the reality of the holocaust with holocaust deniers since it would just present these people with a public platform in which their ‘point of view’ would be considered to be of equal value.
33 Don't Think of an Elephant: Progressive Values and the Framing Wars a Progressive Guide to Action by George Lakoff (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004); Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1989)
34 Played by Nigel Hawthorne.
35 Played by Derek Fowlds.
36 The episode in question was The Grand Design, which first aired on the BBC on the 9th of January 1986.
37 Just a Comma’ Becomes Part of the Iraq Debate by Peter Baker Washington Post 5 October, 2006 at
38 David Irving, for example, went to prison in Austria for this. 
39 See, for example, Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky (Vintage, 1992) p.303. Chomsky says: “One fundamental goal of any well-crafted indoctrination program is to direct attention elsewhere, away from effective power, its roots, and the disguises it assumes.”
40 Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry by John Stauber, Sheldon Rampton (Common Courage Press, September 1995) has some excellent examples.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Blanket recording of tutorials is unlawful

I'm going to repost the essence of an old Twitter thread from June 2018 here for posterity because the issue is live and ongoing.

Some @OpenUniversity folks have been discussing recording of tutorials. 1/
Dr Liz Hartnett @eLizHartnett · Jun 18, 2018 Yes. @OpenUniversity students are in a different situation, and recorded lectures, recorded discussions between academics and recorded lab demos are a must. Remember that tutorials are not lectures and they do not introduce material from outside the module.
We have to remember the importance of dialogue for learning. Dialogues and personal support are critical for learning and what tutorials are all about 2/

- putting people in touch with people, students in touch with informed, dedicated, caring educators, as well as their peers, as @OpenUniversity did so well for so many years 3/

Is it appropriate to record tutorials? In most instances, no. However, it depends on context, informed & willing consent of participants, andragogy, pedagogy, the purpose of the tutorial and of the recording, the careful management & #security of those recordings 4/

Tutorials are private spaces for students to learn and test boundaries, with the aid of their tutor and peers, through activity and discussion of sometimes complex, difficult, controversial and unconventional ideas. 5/

Students will feel far less able to express themselves freely when they know they are being recorded. You don't need to be an expert in the #chilling effect to understand this. 6/

Mission creep associated with retaining large banks of tutorial recordings is unavoidable 7/

The blanket mandatory/default recording of online tutorials is likely unlawful on multiple fronts, the most telling being a breach of fundamental #privacy rights of students and tutors 8/

European Court of Human Rights in November 2017, in Antović and Mirković v. Montenegro decided that routine recording of educators in the classroom constitutes a direct breach of their rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

That case specifically related to the blanket recording of lectures. Tutorials are a more private learning environment. Compulsory recording of online tutorials is an order of magnitude more intrusive than the recording of lectures, from an Article 8 perspective 10/

Whatever about the legalities, from an ethical perspective, routine mass #surveillance of tutors and students in the classroom is simply wrong 11/

Can recordings facilitate post hoc passive student engagement/learning from others’ tutorial experience? To a variable degree, yes. Recordings are popular with students but represent more of a comfort blanket than a facilitation of effective learning 12/

Is the provision of that comfort blanket a proportionate justification for routine blanket recording of all online tutorials? No. 13/

Is the facilitation of accessibility a legitimate aim? Yes. Is the stated provision of accessibility a proportionate justification for blanket recording of all online tutorials? No. Not when there are less #privacy intrusive means available to meet that aim. 14/

Should the @OpenUniversity be producing appropriate, tailored, tutorial-like multimedia recordings and recordings of selected online tutorials to facilitate learning and access for those unable to access tutorials? Yes. 15/

Should the learning design thinking underpinning these recordings be somewhat more sophisticated than “we have a record button, so let’s use it on everything”? Yes. 16/

A mix of professionally produced module team recorded lectures and selected recordings of online tutorials plus recordings of discussions between academics and students might be a pragmatic way forward 17/

Recordings could be much more professionally, effectively, efficiently & cheaply produced once, then be re-used; whilst simultaneously avoiding all of the serious legal, ethical, pedagogic, logistical and resource sapping issues with default recording 18/

 One size fits all policies in education are invariably a straitjacket, restraining educators ability to meet individual student needs 19/

A policy mandating routine compulsory/default recording of all online tutorials is
•Unlawful: a clear breach of privacy of students & tutors
•Disproportionately intrusive
•Immeasurably & boundlessly defective on pedagogic & accessibility grounds

Friday, October 04, 2019

Planet49 cookies

I've been reading the judgment of the European Court of Justice (CJEU) in Case C‑673/17, Bundesverband der Verbraucherzentralen und Verbraucherverbände — Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband eV v Planet49 GmbH.

The case relates to the use of cookies by gaming company, Planet49, in the course of a promotional lottery they organised in 2013. To participate users had to go through the usual rigmarole of agreeing to conditions, subscribers' offering their names and addresses. There were a couple of checkboxes, relating to this.

The first checkbox had to be ticked, as a minimum requirement, to participate but by default was empty, so the user had to select it. The second checkbox came pre-ticked and related to cookies. Missing or leaving the box ticked committed users to:
‘I agree to the web analytics service Remintrex being used for me. This has the consequence that, following registration for the lottery, the lottery organiser, [Planet49], sets cookies, which enables Planet49 to evaluate my surfing and use behaviour on websites of advertising partners and thus enables advertising by Remintrex that is based on my interests. I can delete the cookies at any time. You can read more about this here.’ 
The here was hyperlinked to some text (321 words) on how Remintrex and Planet49 would use cookies. Hyperlinks from the conditions attached to the first checkbox linked to a list of 57 companies. The underlined word 'Unsubscribe' was contained after the name of each company.

We've all seen this kind of stuff, thousands of times.

Germany's Federation of consumer organisations decided to challenge the company, saying the consent requirements of the checkboxes did not satisfy German law. It made its way up through the courts and eventually the German Federal Court of Justice referred it to the Court of Justice of the EU for a preliminary ruling. They asked the Court four questions, which the CJEU, in its wisdom, designated two questions, the first of which was a three-parter (though, on second thoughts, it is possible the German court are responsible for the numbering):

Q1(a) When setting and using cookies, do pre-ticked checkboxes, which a user must deselect to refuse consent, constitute valid consent under EU e-privacy and data protection laws?

Q1(b) Does it make a difference if the data stored on or accessed from a user's computer is technically considered 'personal data' in EU law, under the e-privacy (2002) and data protection directives (1995)? (The data protection directive was still in force at the time of the referral of these questions by the German court.)

Q1(c) Does a valid consent under the GDPR Article 6(1)(a) exist?

Q2 What information does a service provider have to give to meet their obligations under the e-privacy directive of 2002.

In kicking off its analysis the CJEU notes the GDPR has been passed and come into force in the time this case has been in play. However, the referring court knew the GDPR was coming and it was likely it would need to be taken into account. So it was appropriate to include the GDPR in the analysis. If the consumer group decided it needed to take further action e.g. asking for a court order to prevent Planet49 using pre-ticked boxes in future the GDPR would be the relevant law. Anyway the data protection heavy lifting is now done by the GDPR which makes references to the earlier data protection directive through the e-privacy directive.

Or as the Court so eloquently put it, 'ratione temporis'.

Sometimes judges can't help themselves. The ancient language is in the blood.

The analysis of the four questions, appropriately enough, starts at paragraph 44, considering questions 1(a) and (c) together - is a pre-ticked checkbox adequate consent and does valid consent exist under the GDPR?

By paragraph 47 the Court points out that the provisions of the e-privacy directive under scrutiny  "must normally be given autonomous and uniform interpretation throughout the EU". Maybe we shouldn't draw the attention of the Brexit/Tory party extremists, aka the Cabinet, to this one.

Moving on, they come to a natural conclusion based on the clear wording of the eprivacy and data protection directives, that consent requires active consent i.e. action of the part of the user. And the use of pre-ticked checkboxes does not constitute active consent on the part of the user.

One of my favourite lines in the whole judgment is the last sentence of paragraph 55:
"It is not inconceivable that a user would not have read the information accompanying the preselected checkbox, or even would not have noticed that checkbox, before continuing with his or her activity on the website visited."
Nobody reads the T&Cs other than the privacy geeks.

At paragraph 61 they note that conlusion becomes even stronger now the GDPR is in force and active user consent is demanded under that law. 

By paragraph 65, they conclude the e-privacy directive [2002/58] in conjunction with the data protection directive [95/46] and the GDPR [2016/679] nix pre-ticked checkboxes.
"In the light of the foregoing considerations, the answer to Question 1(a) and (c) is that Article 2(f) and Article 5(3) of Directive 2002/58, read in conjunction with Article 2(h) of Directive 95/46 and Article 4(11) and Article 6(1)(a) of Regulation 2016/679, must be interpreted as meaning that the consent referred to in those provisions is not validly constituted if, in the form of cookies, the storage of information or access to information already stored in a website user’s terminal equipment is permitted by way of a pre-checked checkbox which the user must deselect to refuse his or her consent."
Onwards again to Q1(b). This one is not hard either. In the Planet49 lottery the storing of cookies amounts to the processing of personal data. The e-privacy directive aims to protect us from interference with our private sphere, whether it involves personal data or not. So the e-privacy directive [2002/58] in conjunction with the data protection directive [95/46] and the GDPR [2016/679] bar outsiders from invading our private electronic space - protections apply whether the data is personal or not.
"In the light of the foregoing considerations, the answer to Question 1(a) and (c) is that Article 2(f) and Article 5(3) of Directive 2002/58, read in conjunction with Article 2(h) of Directive 95/46 and Article 4(11) and Article 6(1)(a) of Regulation 2016/679, must be interpreted as meaning that the consent referred to in those provisions is not validly constituted if, in the form of cookies, the storage of information or access to information already stored in a website user’s terminal equipment is permitted by way of a pre-checked checkbox which the user must deselect to refuse his or her consent."
Last but not least Q2 analysis begins at paragraph 72. What information does a service provider have to give to meet their obligations under the e-privacy directive of 2002.
"By Question 2, the referring court asks, in essence, whether Article 5(3) of Directive 2002/58 must be interpreted as meaning that the information that the service provider must give to a website user includes the duration of the operation of cookies and whether or not third parties may have access to those cookies."
Well, consent requires clear, comprehensive and sufficiently detailed information to enable the user to understand the use of the cookies. In the promotional lottery case the Court concludes the duration of the operation of the cookies and whether or not third parties may have access to them should be part of the "clear and comprehensive information which must be provided to users", (as designated by article 5(3) of the e-privacy directive and article 10 of the data protection directive. Provisions in the GDPR (Article 13(2)(1) then reinforce this conclusion.)
81  In the light of the foregoing considerations, the answer to Question 2 is that Article 5(3) of Directive 2002/58 must be interpreted as meaning that the information that the service provider must give to a website user includes the duration of the operation of cookies and whether or not third parties may have access to those cookies."
And that's the ballgame.

Consumers organisations 4    Cookie exploiting economic actors 0.

EU law on Q1(a) & (c)
"must be interpreted as meaning that the consent referred to in those provisions is not validly constituted if, in the form of cookies, the storage of information or access to information already stored in a website user’s terminal equipment is permitted by way of a pre-checked checkbox which the user must deselect to refuse his or her consent."
EU law on Q1(b) is
"not to be interpreted differently according to whether or not the information stored or accessed on a website user’s terminal equipment is personal data within the meaning of Directive 95/46 and Regulation 2016/679." (the data protection directive and the GDPR)
EU law on Q2
"must be interpreted as meaning that the information that the service provider must give to a website user includes the duration of the operation of cookies and whether or not third parties may have access to those cookies."
The thing is, that might be the ballgame in terms of the judgment of the Court but we don't know what it will mean in practice. This decision technically means that most if not all websites, including Blogger, are now in breach of EU law. But as the original cookie law was so blatantly circumvented with the pop up 'accept'/'I agree' buttons, there will be a route to technical compliance, worked out as a new norm which doesn't unduly burden commerce on the Net. Commercial organisations have been abusing our privacy for decades now, through this giant surveillance infrastructure panopticon we call the Internet. There have been few or no negative consequences bouncing down on the heads of the rapacious economic actors mining the private lives of the dominant species of the planet. 

Do not be taken in by the "data ownership" or equivalent propositions which is are delusional and/or deceptive slight of hand, peddled by those on a spectrum from true believers to those with vested interests in expanding, ever further, our surveillance society. The solutions have to be structural -
Legal infrastructure to protect privacy adequately enforced. The real effect of the GDPR will be a massive case study in this regard and may take years to evaluate.

The retrofitting and rebuilding and deployment of better privacy respecting technical infrastructure and networks. The Internet is an entirely artificially created entity. It did not have to be built as a giant surveillance machine.

There have to be structural economic incentives with real consequences for the most powerful players - states and global corporations. Economic externalities enable the worst offenders to grab all of the benefits and none of the costs. Let's get the economic feedback loops landing the negative consequences of mass privacy invasive practices right back in the lap of the invaders.

And finally, for now, social. That means you and I, dear reader, have to step back from being a dazzled, addicted and willing participant in the global madness. As a starter for 10, next time you are faced with a 'click this to get at our stuff blah blah, we value your privacy' message, remind yourself, of course they value your privacy, they are making a fortune out of it. How about instead we get them to respect our privacy?

Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Open University Summer Schools of Old

I have just entered my 25th year at The Open University and that venerable institution is also celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019.

The period between 2015 and 2018 was the mostly intensely self-destructive in the history of the OU. The most harmful single act, in that period, was the closure of the regional centres but there were a multitude of other calamitous top-down decisions, actions and schemes.

It is the greatest failure of my professional career that I was unable to prevent the worst of the damage and I remain angry and depressed about that to this day. There may come a time when I am able to write about it dispassionately but that time is not yet and not close.

Today I want to talk about the more gradual decline of a key structural element of the OU's provision for our first 30 years, summer schools.

For a large chunk of those decades the OU would take over conventional university campuses, all over the country, for at least a couple of months in the summer. We installed our staff, students and equipment and ran labs, lectures, tutorials, workshops, field trips and all manner of conceivable conventional educational activities; to complement all of the other supported open learning at a distance activities run through the rest of the year. At the time I spent two weeks every year, teaching, lecturing, assessing, testing, experimenting, running tutorials, labs and field trips at and from UEA, Keele, Stirling and Bath universities.

At the time most of our undergraduate courses ran from February to September. Summer schools would happen just as students were beginning to flag, from the heavy workload of studying degree level subject matter at home. The educational, psychological and social boost they would then get from spending a week or two, in a conventional university setting, with their peers and teachers, got the motivational juices flowing again and saw them successfully through to the end of the academic year. They were an enormously important factor in student retention and success.

When I mention summer schools and lament their much diminished role in our current provision, I often get accused of being a dinosaur, nostalgic for and hankering after a non-existent golden age and anyway (and this line is always delivered with the supreme confidence of those who know they have the clinching argument), "students voted with their feet". What's interesting is that even OU staff who were not with us at the time, have bought into this story and repeat it with complete conviction.

The assertion, essentially, is that
  • students are customers (a notion I reject - educational institutions are students' partners in facilitating their learning and growth)
  • customers should get what they want
  • these customer students were declining to go to summer school in increasing numbers
As with all the best false narratives, this one has an element of truth. Students were declining to go to summer school in increasing numbers.

The real reason for that was not, however, lack of 'customer satisfaction.' Rather is was a step by step, often well intentioned and, in each particular corner of the OU where the decisions were made, internally justifiable, bureaucratic dismantling of the institutional processes underpinning summer schools.

When I started at the OU in the mid 1990s, summer school attendance was compulsory. If you signed up to a course with a summer school you had to attend to pass. Excusal was possible in exceptional circumstances but tiny numbers of students got excusals.

Many students hated the idea of being away from home, family and friends for a week and it was often a wrench to get to the summer school. This was especially the case for foundation students scheduled to attend their first summer school.  The vast majority, however, derived enormous benefit from that attendance. I too hated leaving my family to decamp to summer school but got to meet and work with some incredible people and treasure the experience - OU students and staff are amazing.

Summer schools, though, were huge, logistically complicated and resource intensive operations. Even when not in full flight supplies and equipment had to be warehoused for the 10 months of the year they were not in use.

For a big bureaucracy like the OU, costs are nominally easier to measure than esoteric things like the educational, motivational and goodwill value provided by things like summer schools. Staff time, travel expenses, equipment costs, transport, logistics, campus venues hiring costs etc all appeared on the balance sheet and added up to large sums.

The senior management and their bureaucrats realised that courses with summer schools were more costly for the university than those that did not have summer schools.

At the same time there was a partially formal and partially informal loosening of the processes through which students were able to get excusal from summer school. I know several of those directly involved in this enablement of excusal and their motivation was entirely altruistic. It was all about being nice to students. In some instances students were being actively encouraged by the OU to apply for excusal from summer school. With this development the numbers of students getting excused summer school went up. I don't recall the exact figures but I think it reached about 20% of students getting excused from summer school by the late 1990s.

Management also decided students taking courses with summer schools should be charged a significantly higher fee than those without. In keeping with our institutional values, the OU were open about this. They declared, in multiple communications to students, that we were explicitly charging the higher fee due to the summer school element of the course.

This led to courses with summer schools seeing a significant drop in student registrations.

Then academic course teams producing and presenting courses were reluctant to include summer schools in their courses, since it directly affected student numbers. Hence the number of courses with a summer school component was drastically reduced.

At that point it became easy to claim "students were voting with their feet" and summer schools shouldn't be a compulsory part of the OU degree experience any more, unless external accrediting bodies, like the engineering institutions demanded it. Then we could fulfill that obligation by splitting summer schools away from core courses and running a few of them as stand alone courses that students would sign up for a week to attend e.g. to meet the lab requirements of their engineering degree.

So though students did 'vote with their feet,' the bureaucracy, intentionally or not, orchestrated that situation through undermining summer schools value from the perspective of the students over a period of years, through -
  • Loosening of summer school excusal processes
  • Explicit campaigning to and encouragement of students that they could get out of summer school if they wanted to
  • Consequent increase in numbers skipping summer schools (a core part of the learning experience of the courses concerned)
  • Management and bureaucracy then claimed that summer schools could not be that important if so many students were getting excusals; so there was increasing internal pressure to reduce the numbers of summer schools
  • There were some detrimental effects on success of students on the courses where summer school excusals were up but I'm not aware of any explicit empirical assessment of that link
  • Resource intensive summer schools targeted for efficiency savings by senior management 
  • Explicit differential fee pricing was introduced where courses with summer schools charged students a significantly higher sum
  • Relentless communications to students that the higher fee was due to the summer school, including detailing the specific element of the fee charged against the summer school 
  • Consequent decrease in the number of students taking courses with a summer school element
  • Further reinforcement of the internal belief that students were 'voting with their feet' and summer schools were not that important
  • Parallel decrease in the number of academics willing to produce courses with summer schools as we were constantly under pressure to produce popular courses
  • Big cost savings for senior management as the OU no longer had to spend the summer running summer schools on conventional university campuses nationwide; or sustain associated warehouse costs for the remainder of the year
Meanwhile the key motivational and educational value of the summer schools got lost in the noise.

Nowadays none of our courses have an integrated summer school, though some of our qualifications require students to take stand-alone summer school courses as part of their qualification e.g. engineering degrees.

My own Technology Faculty, in 1999, introduced the first entirely online undergraduate course anywhere in the world, T171 You, Your Computer and the Net, chaired by Martin Weller. We piloted it with 1000 students in 1999 and then ran it with 13,500 students in the year 2000. That itself was a massive institutional challenge for the OU and John Naughton, who along with Gary Alexander and Martin wrote T171, likes to describe it as a success disaster. In the space of 9 months the OU had to put in place the institutional infrastructure to support T171 and anything that might come along like it.  It was a massive organisational shock and one to some degree we have been suffering from ever since. Processes and bureaucracy were locked in place that have been restrictive and difficult to change to this day. Again that's a story for another day.

Along with T172 Working with our environment: technology for a sustainable future, T171 then replaced the old foundation course, T102 Living with Technology and its summer school. I was deeply implicated in both T171 and TM172 but by the time they came along the battle for summer schools was lost. I still believe they have enormous value and could feature in a future sustainable and successful OU but they won't be returning in the short or medium term.

Why am I discussing summer schools now? Well I was prompted partly by Martin Weller's and Stephen Downes's recent exchanges on connectivism and scale. I have a high regard for both and both are committed, in the educational context, to putting people in touch with people. Where I side with Martin is that it is expensive to do this at scale successfully. Martin might not agree, as one of his early T171 mantras in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that face to face tuition was old school dated and unnecessary, but summer schools were (an expensive but) incredibly important and successful component of the OUs supported open learning at a distance. By the same token they gave life to Stephen Downes's justifiable conviction in the power of peer student support/teaching/learning.

The second reason I'm writing about summer schools, now, is that every time someone in the OU churns out the "way-da-minute, students voted with their feet" tune when I talk about summer schools, I have threatened to put the record straight. My old friend Steve Walker did just that, when we were both at the 9th Tensions of Europe conference in Luxembourg last week. (I posted my talk on Turing and mass surveillance earlier this week) To the embarrassment of our travelling companions, we got into a loud discussion about it on the train from the university back into Luxembourg city. Maybe now I've finally made good on the threat to write the story down, I won't be so loud the next time someone brands me a dinosaur, pining for a non-existent gilded age.

The final reason is that the last session I was able to attend at the 9th Tensions of Europe conference was on manufacturing industries in the late l980s and early 1990s. Now I spent a fair chunk of that time working in the aerospace industry. And depressing though it was to have academics and PhD students studying that time as history, two of the panelists were describing story somewhat at odds with my experience. Several questions were raised about research methods by the audience and Steve Walker asked specifically how they were going to take multiple perspectives into account. The third panelist picked up Steve's point immediately and the importance of reality in relation to discourse. Yet as with the summer school story, when a narrative takes hold it can be difficult to derail. Yet some of the 'accepted' narratives around computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) are not what I would accept as an accurate portrayal of my reality of the time. Apparently CIM is back in vogue but it's now labelled 'Industry 4.0.' Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to talk to the panelists after their session, as I was hastily departing to the airport.

In any case, it seems all too easy for history to get revised, even by those genuinely studying it (or repeating a believed narrative about it) for enlightenment. So summer school catharis this was.