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2016 October 3 - 09:25 am

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 wrought.

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 everywhere.

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 messenger.

In a world of instantaneity, we have to open up the secret garden and be quick... or our edification will be dead.

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