Digital Literacy and big brother

Further to my recent post on digital literacy I thought I would revisit one of the areas I mentioned in a little more detail.    The implications of technology use makes for an interesting discussion with students in that there are some implications which we are well aware of, some that we are less aware of and more than likely a whole heap of implications which we haven’t as yet realised.

Taking the implications which we are currently aware of and discussing online safety, or e-safety as we previously called it, has serious implications and as such is being discussed in schools.    We are already discussing with our students about the dangers of people misrepresenting themselves on the internet, the dangers of posting too much personal information on the internet and fake news, which has been the subject of discussion in schools for some years, again hitting the headlines.   I remember teaching about the spaghetti crop failure as a way to illustrate about fake news some 10 or more years ago.    We are also discussing and teaching about the permanence of online data and how once the post, photo or video is out there it is impossible to delete.    Online privacy and security settings are also a topic of discussion with a particular focus on social media usage among our students.

The above are what I consider to be the main areas of discussion in schools around technology use.    Some lesser consideration is given to the impact of search engines such as google.    As we all use google to search for information, we all end up getting the same search results.    This potentially has the impact to narrow our focus as we seldom look beyond the first few results in google, the results which represent the popular answers.     This in turn might obscure from us alternate lines of thought and resources which previously we may have come upon in a book leading us to explore different pathways and possibly even arrive at alternative or even better solutions.

Sticking with google we also need to recognise the purpose of the site in that Google is a business.   As such they need to make money which they achieve through advertising.    What are the implications of their need to sustain or even increase their revenue on the search results they return, the way the present the results and also their gathering of data in relation to the searches we do?    Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc are all businesses so we need to bear this in mind.

This brings us nicely to another implication in the data gathered about us.    If we are logged in to google when we run a search, and we have location services on then google will have gathered information about us in details of the search, the time and the location.     They can, from this, build a profile of our search habits, our interests, our geographical locations and search habits in different locations and at different times.   From this they may be able to work out where we live, work and socialise including the frewuency of each.     Combined with the search habits of our family members they may then be able to start building a profile of the family.    Are we happy with this?     When I think about it I also give thought to the TV series Criminal Minds where the FBIs Behavioural Analysis team are able to gather basic information from a crime scene before providing a detailed profile of the offender or Unidentified Subject, Unsub, for use by law enforcement in arresting the said Unsub.   Through googles data gathering they can identify a lot about us as individuals and our families, beyond the data they gather, by statistical analysis.     And this extends way beyond just Google with Facebook, Target, Amazon, etc. all gathering “Big Data” for use in statistical analysis for the purposes of identifying trends and profiling.

A bigger question which may be how might the data gathered be used in shaping peoples views and perception.    This was raised in relation to Facebooks coverage of the US elections.    Through profiling of users a site or service may choose to feed users with materials targeted at them in order to change their voting or other preferences.     For example, as a user my profile may show that I am very focussed on human rights, via my search habits and postings on social media, so the service shares with me articles and incidents where the actions of the party which the service do not want me to vote for have infringed on human rights.    At the same time they may show me materials on where the party they want me to vote for have taken noble actions in relation to human rights.     When I find myself ready to put my cross on the voting ballot paper I remember one party which was good in relation to human rights, an area I focus on, while the other party were not.   I therefore tick the form accordingly however how much of my decision was influenced by technology and profiling?   Was it my decision at all?

Looking at emerging technologies, the internet of things (IoT) is definitely growing in profile.   As such more and more devices are being connected to the internet including fitness trackers, home security systems, heating and lighting control and many more systems.   We also have devices such as Amazon Echo and googles equivalent device.    Each of these devices gathers more data about us and our habits.    This data in turn can be used to infer further data about us through statistical methods.  Is this Orwells big brother becoming reality as we introduce more technology into our lives, allowing more and more data to be gathered about all we do?

I am very much for the use of technology.   The key though is in the need to consider the implications and act accordingly.   The world generally, in my opinion, exists in balance and therefore for every gain or benefit of technology there is a flip side, whether we know it or not.     With our students who often eagerly adopt new services and tech for their perceived or advertised benefits the key is the need for us as educators to ensure that they have considered the other side.



Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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