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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Out of the Black Box | EDUCAUSE Review

Photo: Safiya U. Noble
Photo: Sarah Roberts
"Each quarter, we ask our new undergraduate and graduate students how they form their basis of knowledge, a question that inevitably leads to conversations referencing the information technology that informs their daily educational lives." reports assistant professor at UCLA. 

Photo: EDUCAUSE Review

While their interaction with their own learning environments both on and off campus, and with scholarly knowledge itself, is now almost always in digital form, it is also almost wholly embedded within an IT context that operates largely invisibly to most of our students — that is, through black-boxed technologies. Not only are students embedded in the array of systems and networks, databases, and digital tools provided to them by the vast IT infrastructure of our university, but they frequently traverse those local networks to venture out into other information worlds, often through the gateways of Google Search, and into the realm of large-scale commercial information providers. Their digital travels are via invisible, seamless, high-speed, and ubiquitous connectivity over a multitude of devices. 

Search engines and algorithmically driven platforms are a staple of the present, and future information seeking without them seems unimaginable. As students move through a variety of digital information sources, they generally do not notice the changing contexts and nature of the information providers, and they do not see the infrastructure and labor involved in the creation and maintenance of those sources. The results obtained from quick keyword searches on Google, Bing, or other search portals are typically unquestioned in terms of their validity, value, and persistence. Indeed, many students report that they could never write a paper without Google or the Internet and cannot imagine the not-so-distant past when we did just that: working with paper-based information sources through the intermediary of campus research librarians. Ask any group of undergraduate students what it would be like if all of their information services became unavailable at the close of the library at midnight. The anguished gasps of horror would permeate far beyond the confines of the campus.
 
The IT services that higher education institutions and libraries now provide have been liberating for students and researchers alike, allowing academic inquiry to be undertaken without geographic, physical, or time constraints. Yet so many of these information technologies that we have rapidly embraced over the past thirty years in higher education have contributed to another kind of constrained sphere of knowledge, in very specific ways that have gone largely unchallenged by those of us entrusted with creating and maintaining our students’ informational environment. Black-boxed technologies that amass and commercialize data on students, often without their knowledge, and that often serve as privatized aggregators of their intellectual work (e.g., Turnitin) are uncritically embraced as learning technologies that will foster intellectual honesty and accountability. While on one hand, the need to detect plagiarism may be a widely accepted rationale, it is also true that these technologies surveil students and put the onus on technologies to police students — rather than our fostering trust and accountability through a framework of ethics and expertise developed in a teacher-student relationship. 
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Source: EDUCAUSE Review


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