Keeping Secrets In An Era of Instant Information
Privacy and the Need To Share Data Frequently Collide
It's all out there.
In a world of
instantaneity, when I can be more than 3,000 miles away from a football stadium
and still know about the action as it happens, not just via television or radio
but delivered to me by "tweet" or "automatic update," and
when I can know about earthquakes geological and political as they happen, all
of this complete with clouds of commentary, I realize that we really do live in
a world of informational contradiction:
On the one hand, secrecy
is sought, and on the other hand, openness is what our multiple media have
And as usual, when I
ponder quandaries, I put them into the context of the community college, where
I spend most of the parts of my part-time life. Small examples of the quandary
of contradiction show up every day.
Secrecy: One morning last
week, I tried to reach some former students to advise them that a new,
low-pressure refresher course in French language and culture is about to begin
this coming week, but only if at least a dozen interested parties sign up for
it in advance. This was to be just an invitation, a low-stress announcement.
But I found that "privacy" rules keep students' data secret from me.
I cannot know their telephone numbers or "home" E-mail addresses.
Indeed, the college tells me that I cannot contact these people except through
college-administered e-mail, which they rarely if ever use, as former, rather
than current, students.
Uncovering data in an
information age can mean making open what once might have been secret, as we
know from recent reports on politicians' pecuniary practices. Privacy and
parental controls, secrecy selections, and accessibility concerns make people
cringe when their oh-so-irregularly defined electronic boundaries are breached,
but these same frontiers can frustrate, as well.
Openness: Later the same morning,
after giving up on sending E-mail to former students, I looked briefly at my
Facebook pages—I keep these available for students' communication and for my
own posting of hot news from the francophone world that is my course subject
matter at half a dozen institutions. Old students and new ones were posting
messages there, live and in real time, instantly, including questions to me
about new and ongoing courses and difficult access to assignments. It was
curious to me that some of these learners were the same ones whom I had been
trying to reach earlier in the day, and others were ones whose assignments had
been "locked" against their access by a system that had classified the
material as "private," secreted from their gaze. Those assignments,
the students were reminding me, require that that I make them
"accessible" or "open" to students whom I select.
What's up with all of
this, I wondered. Why and how can institutions dig up data about students'
social lives and relations, their activities and proclivities, often using
social networks as filters for funding, as Ritter(2013) has complained,
withdrawing money because of "poor social media choices,"and then
lure supposedly cyber-savvy learners into cyberspace with promises that it is
safe, stimulating, an instigator of learning, an essential aspect of what makes
an institution top-notch, as "bestcolleges.com" suggests?
I believe that the answer
to this conundrum lies in learning how to evaluate, how to criticize, how to
filter the substantive from the insubstantial, the worthwhile wheat from the
chatty chaff. And this is ever more difficult in an epoch when libraries are
closing, when research methods are losing focus, and when TMI (too much
information) is cited by students overwhelmed by data streaming in from
What to do?
Besides being the guide on
the side, as is suggested time and again by modern mavens in schools of
education, I would hope that the teacher help his learner to become a good
critic of all that surrounds. Is information that is streamed from TMZ as
reliable as that which the BBC is broadcasting? Is an article posted online at
some news site's electronic bulletin board worth the same attention as is the
site's original, edited, and fact-checked article? Let's learn not only about
how the medium can make the message but how the message can be massaged by the
In a world of instantaneity, we have to open up the secret garden and be quick... or our edification will be dead.