The digital erosion of trust

This post is an exploration of a theme which I mentioned in the 16/04/2020 edition of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with  Bonni Stachowiak and Jose Bowden.

it was also part of the discussion at the online workshop Bonnie Stewart and myself ran at OER20.

Given the dangers currently involved in daily life it’s understandable why many people want to employ every aspect of information which can be reaped from the digital environment to reduce risk. In China we hear of an app which shows the body temperature of your delivery driver and in the UK there appear to be plans for an app which will tell you if you have been in close proximity to someone who may have the virus. Forms of surveillance that only weeks ago would have been considered such a serious infringement of our rights they might have been left unsaid, are now being mooted on a daily basis. 

CC:BY Peter Leth https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterleth/4505254988

This is where I find the phrase: “Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should” extremely useful. The reason being that once technology presents us with an opportunity to reduce risk – with the inevitable negation of trust* – we feel a pressure to employ it (who wants to be the person who has to say ‘We decided not to use it’ when something goes wrong?). This plays out in numerous ways across society and in education, which myself and Bonnie Stewart explored in our session for OER20.

Our OER20 session

Care vs Surveillance 

In preparing the session, Bonnie suggested that many of the most contentious issues around the use of technology for teaching can be expressed as a tension between care and surveillance. For example, it could be considered caring to track students in digital platforms to understand how they are engaging with their learning. It can also be considered surveillance. In technology, care and surveillance tend to go hand-in-hand.

If we ignore this data and don’t identify that some students have all but dropped out then are we failing in our duty as educators? Once this source of information exists we have to be extremely deliberate in our reasons for using it or avoiding it. In a sector which is increasingly massified, data often stands in for relationships as the notional medium for care, and yet no institution has ever increased surveillance without claiming its role is to create a more caring, or safer, environment. 

Trust vs Fairness

The main casualty here is trust. Whenever we introduce something to increase ‘fairness’ we also reduce trust. For example, with online submissions of assessed work we track very closely if students hand-in work late. We can also identify which student we think submitted which piece of work by looking at their login. In many cases we don’t need to trust students to do the right thing because we have a digital process which negates trust in favour of fairness.

This could also be seen as protecting the reputation of the institution and the value of what it awards. Trust vs fairness and surveillance vs care are not simple problems to solve, they are tensions which require complex negotiation across managers, teachers and students. Even so, we all have stories of technologies which have been introduced that circumvent any negotiation by reifying aspects of surveillance and fairness as standard ‘features’. This often makes concrete an implicit aspect of institutional culture which actually required significant discretion.

Upholding freedoms 

As education moves online we are going to have to get better at stating, and upholding, our values around trust and care with the concomitant acknowledgment of the risk we are accepting to protect certain freedoms. If not, then education will continue to merge with the corporate/civic surveillance state we are now only too aware of. To avoid sleepwalking into this new normal there will be times where we must deliberately refuse to use aspects of the data and control which technology offers, even when there are demands framed in terms of fairness or reduction of risk. 

Freedom is risky and risk requires trust. I believe that educational institutions, especially universities, should create spaces of negotiated risk. My hope is that we can do this in both our physical and digital spaces so that the latter does not become a surveillance tool we use to ‘balance out’ trust gifted in other environments. Certainly now is a time to uphold trust in the face of surveillance whether that be with our students as we teach online or in wider society. Extending our ability to know and control is not axiomatic as it is better to be free than to be risk free.