Photo of Dr. Bonnie Stewart.Education professor Bonnie Stewart hopes to start a conversation at universities about the data collected by the apps and platforms used in teaching with her three-year study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Research probes privacy concerns of classroom technology

When was the last time you read the terms of service on a digital platform or app?

If the answer is never, you are not alone, says UWindsor education professor Bonnie Stewart.

Dr. Stewart, an expert on the digital classroom, is conducting research into academics’ perspectives on the privacy concerns inherent in the technologies used in education. She says her goal is to shed light on a “key gap” in how universities approach online teaching tools and how they prepare their students for teaching careers. She hopes to generate conversation at the sector level about data ethics, and inform policy on optimal practices.

“Classroom tools and platforms are designed to extract data and monitor users in ways the that traditional four walls of a classroom are not,” Stewart said.

“Educators and knowledge workers need to better understand the changing system we work and learn in.”

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has awarded Stewart nearly $63,500 to study the issue of datafication in higher education. The three-year project is an extension of a survey Stewart conducted in the summer of 2020 that involved 339 professors and faculty development staff from universities in 26 countries.

Apps and platforms collect untold data on its users. Some capture images to gauge attentiveness. Proctoring platforms bring strangers into students’ homes. Some apps may lead to targeted advertising depending on your location, demographic information, or the type of device you sign on with.

“None of this is transparent,” Stewart said. “We are at the mercy of these start-ups.”

For her current project, Stewart has gone back to 11 of the survey respondents and conducted in-depth interviews. The interviews serve as case studies, tracing academics’ knowledge, practices, experiences, and perspectives on data and online classroom tools.

Stewart hopes to explore the barriers to building data literacies and spark conversations at institutions about removing those barriers. She said she wonders if universities should give data ethics the same attention as research ethics.

The pandemic brought the issue into focus, Stewart said.

“Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education has moved online at a scale previously unseen, fast-forwarding academia's entanglement in proprietary, datafied systems,” she said.

“We need to ask ourselves, what are we signing off on on behalf of our students and what are failing to teach them to question.”

—Sarah Sacheli

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