Saturday, August 05, 2006

Blackboard patent litigation rouses the elearning community

Well at least the open and e-learning* communities have been getting worked up about the Blackboard patent litigation, even if no one else has. Here's a sample from Stephen Downes and Alex Reid. Reid says:

"With any luck this ridiculous claim will fall flat, meanwhile a few observations on why this was a bad idea, even from their own perspective.

1. Though increasing numbers of faculty may be entering the area of online education, the practice is still heavily reliant upon a small number of faculty. They are the early adopters who then turn around and evangelize for technology, encourage campus support for new technologies, and support other faculty in taking that first step. On my campus, you'd be talking about a dozen or so faculty. Our campus has used Web CT (bought up by Blackboard last year).

Why would I, or any of these faculty, invest our time in learning or developing practices within a strictly proprietary environment that is wholly counter not only to the principles of academic freedom but also to the potential of global communication. After all, this is roughly analogous to giving some publisher a patent for textbooks!

2. Technology education is currently a field of scholarly investigation. Developments in online pedagogy rely upon such research. This far-reaching patent would essentially put an end to any research in online pedagogy. Why research new cooking recipes when you'll be sued if you make anything but a Big Mac?

3. There may be a lot of money to be made in the area of online education, but not by teachers. It may be the case that many faculty are unaware of Blackboard's patent claims or haven't thought through the implications. However, when this situation is properly presented as an infringement on academic freedom, I think there will be a significant response. Specifically, it is difficult, if not impossible in most cases, to require faculty to teach online. If the choice is between Blackboard and not being online then we must not offer online courses.

However, I do not think we need to make this choice. Instead, perhaps Blackboard's patent is the evil impetus to move us away from a "course-based system" of "online courses:" the bad idea that they want to claim as their fundamental intellectual property.

What happens if I establish a wiki, not associated with any particular course or even necessarily with my college? I let anyone create an account and participate on the wiki. I might post material on the wiki and require my students to read it, just as I might ask students to read material on other websites. I might require students to add to the wiki. But it wouldn't be a course-based wiki. That is, it wouldn't be created for a course. It wouldn't start and end with the course. The participants on the wiki would not be limited to students registered in the course. It wouldn't even be limited to members of the college community.

Similarly, I have this blog. I use it for a number of purposes that have no direct relation to the courses I teach. I've been running it for a couple years now. If I invite my students to post here, does it suddenly become a course-based website. I don't think so.

This is the direction in which we need to head anyway, away from the "course-centric" philosophy of "management" systems. Indeed the whole notion of courses and course-credit is atavistic anyway, left over from a time when formal learning was restricted to limited times and spaces. Yes, I suppose we are still in that "time," but we are also one foot out from under it.

In my view, the very fact that Blackboard's claim begins and ends on the notion of the course is testament to their lack of vision and innovative thinking. Unfortunately higher education has long demonstrated an equal inability to innovate, but perhaps it doesn't have to stay that way."

Well said.

*Just as a matter of interest, I don't believe there is any such thing as 'e-learning', any more than there is e-commerce, e-government or e-anything else. e-anything is just the activity supported, facilitated or complimented by new technologies. What's really important for education is open learning, whatever format or vessel facilitates it. The Blackboard patent, in spite of the pedagogic strait jacket the architecture and thinking imposes, is still bad news, in my opinion, for open learning.

Friday, August 04, 2006

SpyBlog on Net-ID-me

SpyBlog has a wonderful analysis of the much hyped children's ID system Net-ID-Me system launched recently, which supposed to protect kids from online predators.


Why was the service launched in public, without the following points having been addressed ?

Where is there any assurance that all of the staff at NetIDme have been subjected to at least the same level of checks on the Criminal Records Bureau , as if they were employed at a school ?

There is no such assurance...

Why is there no use of Secure Sockets Layer version 3 (SSL) or Transport Layer Security version 1.0 session encryption either when filling in the sensitive personal details such as Nickname and Password during registration, or to protect the online credit card details, or for a child to actually log on to the service via the website...

Illegal data processing of personal information ? Is NetIDme Limited properly registered under the Data Protection Act 1998 ?

The company's entry on the the Register of Data Controllers Registration Number: Z8752777 shows only 3 statutory Purposes, under the Data Protection Act:

  • Staff Administration
  • Advertising, Marketing & Public Relations
  • Accounts & Records

All with possible data transfers "Worldwide"

i.e. there nothing about the actual NetIDme service , customer registration, credit card name and address details, personal details of children, "sophisticated IP address tracking", audit log files etc. etc...

The NetIDme scheme claims to
When you’ve completed the online registration, a form will be sent out to your home. The form needs to be signed by you, and your details must be confirmed by a professional person who knows you well (such as your teacher, doctor or lawyer). If you’re under 18, your parent or guardian must also sign the form.

How exactly, can NetIDme make sufficient checks on the authenticity of such signatures, when the UK Identity and Passport Service (IPS) cannot do so for Passport applications ?

If their checks on signatures and "sponsors" are not at least as good as those by the UK IPS, then what possible use are they in preventing false or multiple applications for NetIDme accounts ?"

The original is a must read though as it has load more useful information on the scheme. Needless to say SpyBlog doesn't recommend the service.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Blackboard sues for patent infringement

Education systems supplier, Blackboard, having recently been granted a broad patent (no. 6,988,138) in the US on technology used for "internet-based education support systems and methods" didn't let any grass grow under its feet before suing Desire2Learn Inc for allegedly infringing said patent. The patent has also been passed in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore and is pending in the EU and various other parts of the world.

Excuse my foaming at the mouth about this but the patent is nonsense on stilts and generically could be interpreted to describe what we have been doing here at the Open University for at least a generation and certainly for the 11 years that I've been here. I suspect Centrinity's FirstClass will be on Blackboard's lawyers' list of targets as well as the open source Moodle system the OU are adopting.

Well, if it takes this kind of patent litigation to wake the education sector (I emphatically reject the notion that universities constitute an "industry") up to the damage that can be done by an imbalance in the intellectual property system then maybe it will serve some useful purpose. The experience could well be painful. Remember Blackboard are the company that sued two technology students, under computer hacking and intellectual property laws, for daring to understand their technology and trying to present a paper on it at a security conference. From Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book, Back to the Future: Digital Decision Making:

"In 2003, two students decided to publish a research paper on an electronic security problem. The two, Billy Hoffman of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Virgil Griffith of the University of Alabama had discovered a security hole in Blackboard’s university ID card system. They decided to publish a paper on the problem at a security conference in Georgia but Blackboard’s lawyers stepped in wielding the DMCA, trademark and computer hacking laws and got a court to issue an injunction preventing the disclosure of the details of the problem.

The students eventually reached an out of court settlement with Blackboard apologising to the company for their actions and agreeing to "refrain from any further unauthorized access to or use of the System," including "any transaction designed to better understand or determine how the System works." "

Jennifer Jenkins of Duke University has a terrific write up of the case at the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

EDRI-gram newsletter - Number 4.15, 2 August 2006

The latest EDRI-gram newsletter is available and full of interesting digital rights stories as usual. The three that caught my eye were the Telecom Italia wiretapping scandal, Digital Rights Ireland's data retention challenge and the delay of the EU's Schengen Information System II "that allows the competent authorities in the Member States to obtain information regarding certain categories of persons and property."

The panacea of parental choice in education

The chairman of the parliamentary education select committee, Barry Sheerman, thinks formal education should start at the later age of seven and that the "belief that parental choice can achieve good education for all is naive." He's right.

Surveillance induced depression

Some of Kim Cameron's friends have been getting depressed with the increase in mass surveillance.

"You know, this whole pervasive surveillance thing is getting depressing, especially when you combine it with RFIDs and ubicomp and similar technologies. It’s Big Brother, Little Brother, Uncle Private Eye, Little Snoopy Sister, and every other nosy parker you can think of.

If you’re interested in these sorts of things, my old buddy Bruce Sterling, who surfaces in the blog from time to time, writes pretty often about them in his Wired blog, Beyond the Beyond, which I highly recommend anyway on the grounds that Bruce is about as on top of things as anyone can be without having his head explode."

He only wanted a header...

Simon Hattenstone has been getting self conscious about watching kids having a kick about in the park and admonished by his young daughter for asking them for a header.

Generating this kind of anxiety and suspicion out of innocent behaviour is something our society specialises in and it is dangerously corrosive and destabilising. A few years back I was in a playground with my children. I spotted one of the older kids in the park pulling one of the smaller ones off the top of what was a very tall ladder from the little fellah's perspective. He could have got quite a bump if he hadn't managed to hang on. I told the bigger kid to stop, whereupon he ran off wailing "MUUUM THAT MAN TOLD ME OFF." Within seconds I was being screamed at by the mother. Well it was at least easy to see from whence her son had derived his bullying tendencies.

Fear and anxiety begets fear and anxiety and associated fearful and aggressive behaviour. The more we whip up disproportionate fear and hysteria about relatively small but spectacularly and understandably emotive risks related to everything from child protection to terrorist attacks, the more we undermine the basis of a healthy society.

The wisdom of H.L. Mencken

Quote of the day:


Sunday, July 30, 2006

Blair buys Cliff's copyright rhetoric

Tony Blair, according to the Sunday Times has bought Cliff Richard's and the BPI's rhetoric about extending the term of copyright on sound recordings.

"The Sunday Times has obtained a written record of an internal Labour meeting at which the prime minister sets out his priorities.

At the meeting of the national executive committee on July 19 last year Blair said that despite the “dominating global headlines” and recent terror attacks, Labour must not lose sight of the domestic agenda.

In the midst of such high-profile issues as the liberalisation of the Post Office and public apathy to elections, Blair “addressed concerns” about copyright laws “whereby Cliff Richard and the Rolling Stones only receive 50 years’ protection compared with 70 years in the rest of Europe”, according to one member’s detailed written record. "

EU plan to fingerprint all children

The Observer reports this morning on an EU plan to fingerprint all children in member states.

"British children, possibly as young as six, will be subjected to compulsory fingerprinting under European Union rules being drawn up in secret. The prints will be stored on a database which could be shared with countries around the world.

The prospect has alarmed civil liberties groups who fear it represents a 'sea change' in the state's relationship with children and one that may lead to juveniles being erroneously accused of crimes. Under laws being drawn up behind closed doors by the European Commission's 'Article Six' committee, which is composed of representatives of the European Union's 25 member states, all children will have to attend a finger-printing centre to obtain an EU passport by June 2009 at the latest.

The use of fingerprints and other biometric data is designed to prevent passport fraud and allow European member states to meet US entry visa requirements"

Yet again the claim that fingerprints are required on passports to meet US requirements is trotted out without question. Yet again it will be believed. Yet again it is wrong. The US only require a digital photo on the passport at the moment. Besides, they fnigerprint all foreign visitors now themselves under the US VISIT programme.

They know not what they do and unsurprisingly those reporting on what they do are also somewhat confused.

Update: John Lettice, the Register's resident ID polemisist has a few choice things to say about the kiddiprinters.