Pop Up Ed Tech, Trust, and Ephemerality

Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

This post captures a back and forth text conversation that Anne-Marie Scott and I had about one of her many brilliant ed tech ideas. She’ll have a version of this posted over on her site as soon as she gets back from the cinema, but in the meantime her blog is a treasure trove of higher ed and ed tech thinking.

T – The other day we were chatting about open ed tech infrastructures and you mentioned something that caught my attention… you called it Pop up tech.  My head went to the concept of pop up shops, physical spaces that are occupied briefly by a brand and their products that may exist online the rest of the time, and I’m curious if you can say a bit more about what pop up tech is?

AMS – Yeah – this was something I wrote about as part of my rant on the NGDLE concept (https://ammienoot.com/uncategorized/some-more-thoughts-on-the-ngdle-for-what-its-worth/)and it came from several different places. Firstly I was seeing a few tweets about students getting in touch with Universities after they’d graduated and asking for blogs they’d created to be taken down as they no longer wanted this stuff hanging around. At the same time I was re-reading some ideas JISC had about next generation learning environments – they mooted the idea of the pop-up VLE, but never took it further. Finally, I was reading stuff about Transcyberian who run cryptoparty events which seem to be a mashup of a hackathon and a dance party (https://transcyberien.org/?manifesto/)That’s where the reference to Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones writing came from “Any attempt at permanence that goes beyond the moment deteriorates to a structured system that inevitably stifles individual creativity. It is this chance at creativity that is real empowerment.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temporary_Autonomous_Zone)

As I dug into that more I really liked it as a metaphor for how EdTech might behave. I think we’re all inherently a little lazy and that’s what a lot of software companies bank on – making it as frictionless as possible for you to do things that might not be in your best interests. So I started thinking more about what the possibilities of pop-up / impermanent / self-destructing edtech tools might look like. I coined the phrase “emphemeral by design” and wondered what sorts of creative possibilities might appear if we know the tool / space we’re working in isn’t permanent? Might we make different choices? Take different risks? Be bolder / braver / more experimental? I also like the idea that positive action needs to be taken to *keep* a thing rather than delete a thing. That seems to have the possibility of more informed / intentional decision making. There are immediate personal consequences to inaction and you’re working to your own interests, not someone else’s. After this I saw some tweets relating to a talk Mike Caulfield gave about information environmental activism and I thought that was quite a nice methaphor too. There’s something about building in the clean up as part of the systems we use that seems to be at the heart of privacy by design for me.

T – What I find interesting about the pop up tech idea is how it runs counter, or perhaps in conjunction with  a somewhat pervasive idea of digital preservation.  For example, I might very much want to ensure that my family photos are preserved, but I’m not sure I care about the essay I wrote in my undergrad, or the report I wrote at my former job.  Increasingly, I find the pressure to preserve has resulted in boxes full of external hard drives and other distractions that I call digital pollution.  So the idea of the default action being “to keep” vs to “delete” is really appealing to me.  I’m curious how you think this might play out in a teaching and learning context.  Are there examples you’ve encountered where pop up tech might have resulted in a different or more enriched teaching and learning experience?

AMS – It’s not an idea that I’ve been able to put into practice yet, but we have just agreed the retention policy for our new WordPress blogging platform and by default student work will be deleted when they leave the University, unless there’s some intervention to keep it for longer. That intervention will require a staff member to take over the admin of the blog, and for the student to give explicit consent for it to be kept. That is consistent with data protection law, and respects that the copyright for this work belongs to the student and they should have agency over that. So it will be interesting to see how this unfolds over time…

What I would also say is that after I wrote about this on my blog, I found an academic paper from Cornell about Snapchat which looked at some of the same considerations “Automatic Archiving versus Default Deletion: What Snapchat Tells Us About Ephemerality in Design” (https://doi.org/10.1145/2818048.2819948)and it picked up on some observations around what they called “Performance with Less Self-consciousness Behaviour”. That could well be an effect of the tighter personal networks that the platform observes, but there was definitely something about playful, slightly more risk-taking behaviour that seemed to bear out the same thinking.

The other thing that connects with this is that at the same time, my colleague Prof Sian Bayne was concluding a research project on the YikYak platform (for those that remember it was an anonymous chat platform very heavily used in Universities and Colleges). She was lamenting the loss of what was for some a space where some conversations about the realities of life at Uni could be discussed. She tied this to Amy Collier’s work around Digital Sanctuaries and published a piece for WonkHE (a UK website for academic policy nerds) which is a good summation of her thinking – https://wonkhe.com/blogs/digital-sanctuary-and-anonymity-on-campus/“…with its closure, universities lost something – a light touch, hyperlocal, ephemeral and low-stakes peer network where students could ask stupid questions, raise difficult issues and support each other through awkward times.”

T – It’s interesting that you bring up Snapchat, which promised ephemerality but didn’t live up to the promise. Your retention policy for WordPress seems to be be a good way of communicating both an expectation and a promise perhaps, which is a step towards building trust.   How does trust come into this, whether it’s YikYak or Snapchat or pop up tech?  

AMS – I love that you mentioned trust as that’s very relevant to the moment too. We thought a lot about the balance of trust versus control within our blogging service and made a deliberate decision not to lock the technology down super-tight, but to go for an approach that makes clear our expectations for use, and to devise a take-down policy to clearly and quickly deal with the very small number of issues that might ever occur. That approach I think leaves the maximum amount of creative possibility open to our students and staff – the joy of a blogging platform like WordPress is the extent to which you can make it your own. I’m going to park the question of how much trust we should have in commercial companies that provide free services to us – I think we’ve seen over and again that they aren’t trustworthy, and we should reflect on the nature of the transactions we’re engaged in. 

You know that my colleague Jen Ross is about to start up a new project with Amy Collier that also focuses on trust issues in institutions – check out the site here: https://aftersurveillance.net/aims/“‘After Surveillance’ is about imagining and developing trusting alternatives to visibility & surveillance in higher education.”

I was also given a lovely little book by visiting colleagues from the University of Aarhus. It’s called “Trust” by Gert Tinggaard Svendsen and looks at the role that trust plays in Danish economic prosperity. He talks about trust in the workplace, the “gift exchange” that comes with trust and the “social debt” that such exchange builds up. That to me sounds like how you build community and is at the heart of how our institutions should operate. I worry about the extent to which we trust our students – plagiarism detection systems, fear of being filmed in lectures, fear of students writing rude things on blogs. That’s not to say bad things don’t occasionally happen, but in my experience it doesn’t happen often.  

T- I know you’re involved in Apereo and Esup-Portail, which provide open source technology to higher ed. Do you think there’s a place for pop up tech in those structures, and do you think that there is more space to engage with the trust issue in contrast to trust in commercial software (where there has been good evidence to suggest that the Silicon Valley business models aren’t working in our best interests when it comes to the type of trust we are needing in higher ed)? 

AMS – I think there’s one very obvious trust issue in open source – that the code is open to inspection, scrutiny and critique. It’s not a panacea, and of course it can be modified in implementation, but I think starting from a point of transparency is not a bad place to begin. For me, engagement with Apereo and ESUP-Portail is about fostering community and ownership around open software projects and believing that we can own more of our own business and probably have a better handle on what works for education than Silicon Valley companies might. Beyond that, I think the question of whether ephemeral tech is required or not is probably a pedagogical one – what are we trying to achieve and will it help?
I don’t draw a hard distinction between open source and commercial software because there’s plenty of commercial software that’s based on open source. Many of the big platform companies release various of their projects under open source licenses and make quite a deal about it. More broadly, the question of trust in any software though is about the detail of implementation – ultimately it’s not a technology question – it’s about human motivation. You can do decidedly shady things with open source, which is a criticism Pat Lockley will level at open source licenses (“for any purpose”).

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