Digital Musings on the High School to College Transition

This year my kid is a senior in high school, and we’ve spent the past month recuperating from the flurry of college application activity last fall. As should not be a surprise, college admissions have changed lots since I applied to colleges in the pre-internet era, though I somehow still found parts of the process surprising.

It’s 2019, so of course all colleges use online applications. All of the schools my kid applied to accepted one of the common applications, which allow applicants to use one platform to submit the same application to multiple schools. My kid took the SAT and several subject tests, which required registering and sending scores to colleges via the College Board’s website. We were also required by his high school to use an online platform to manage their part of the application process — sending teacher recommendations and transcripts — by linking up that platform to the common application platform. And don’t even get me started on the FAFSA.

There are about 1,500 students in my kid’s senior class, and four (4!) guidance counselors. He attends one of New York City’s public specialized high schools and lots of students apply to selective schools, each of which require additional essays, video uploads, or other materials. Throughout this whole process last fall — which we were fortunate to be able to complete in our apartment where we have broadband internet access and laptops — I could not stop thinking about all of the kids in his school who don’t have that kind of access. They’re filling out college applications in the school library, the public library, maybe at their parents’ workplaces. They may have questions; they definitely have questions, it’s a complicated process on platforms that are not always intuitive to use, and they might have to make several appointments with counselors to have their questions answered.

Throughout my kid’s high school years I’ve thought about the digital divide. The classes he’s taken have required multiple accounts on multiple online systems, some provided by the NYC Dept of Education, some homework systems offered by other entities, and of course the everpresent Google for his high school email account. From talking with other parents in and outside of NYC it seems like most K-12 students are required to use multiple different digital platforms throughout their schooling. In our experience there has been little guidance or training for students or parents on how to use these systems, and no way to opt out of their use.

While I’m concerned with digital literacy, and the assumptions that the persistent “digital native” trope encourages us to make about how students use these required platforms, I’m also concerned about data privacy. My kid’s high school and all of these various college application systems have so much information about him and created by him. Each college he applied to required him to set up an account on their system to communicate admissions decisions. How many schools — primary through higher ed — have digital information about students who are no longer enrolled or perhaps won’t even be admitted? Yes, educational institutions retained student (or prospective student) data in the past, but file cabinets full of paper applications in an admissions office don’t have the same information security implications as a digital database.

While it’s certainly been cathartic for me to write out my frustrations, how does this connect to libraries? I continue to keep in mind our students’ experiences with technologies, remembering that they’ve likely had varying exposure to training on digital platforms for school use, as well as varying access to the technology needed to use those platforms. Not every student has a computer with broadband internet access at home. It also feels ever more urgent to me for libraries to strengthen our data privacy practices, a huge issue that we don’t have complete control over, with so many of our digital platforms controlled by vendors. I’m cheered that there are librarians and others doing great work on data privacy issues, including the National Web Privacy Forum (which I was fortunate to participate in), focusing on how we might protect patrons from third-party tracking, and the Data Doubles project, which is examining students’ perspectives on data collection by libraries and institutions of higher ed. I’m looking forward to digging into the results of this work as these projects progress. And in the meantime, perhaps I’ll work with my kid to see what data we might delete from all of these systems once he no longer needs them to have it.

What We Know and What They Know: Scholarly Communication, Usability, and Un-Usability.

Over the past handful of years, a lot of digital ink has been spilled on library responses to #icanhazpdf, SciHub, and, most recently, the #Twitterlibraryloan movement. This hit home in my life because  in recent discussion with students at my University, we found that students told us outright that they used SciHub because of its ability to “get most things.”

How we talk about piracy with our patrons is an important topic for discussion, and places a tremendous amount of emphasis on the ethics of a for-profit publishing model. But it places librarians in a precarious situation defending publishing practices that build barriers to research.

SciHub Pirates, from the Rjiksmuseum in Amsterdam. Schip van de schrijver Jean de Thevenot door zeerovers overmeesterd, Jan Luyken, 1681

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lydia Thorn wrote an excellent piece about teaching professors and students about the importance of legal means of acquisition, pointing to an expectation of immediate access and declining library budgets as culprits in this explosion of piracy. Thorn suggests pointing to the ways in which piracy hurts small presses and not-for-profit publishers and how the library can and should fill these needs. She also suggests that we point to several open models that provide access to materials without the illegality of piracy.

Switching gears slightly, it reminds me of the difficulties I have in working with faculty on online scholarly profiles. Because I administer DigitalCommons@USU, and its profiling system Selected Works, I am often confronted with faculty and students who use the for-profit academic profiling systems (I’m using this difficult phrase to talk about the systems that we all know but I’d rather not name) that are extremely popular across the world and across disciplines.

What brings these two examples and issues together is the way in which we, as librarians, promote ourselves as experts in this realm and how, in a lot of ways, our strategies for promoting our services fall flat. Faculty are not cynical monsters who actively search for ways to be “anti-library,” but make rational choices that fit what they need. They aren’t very often knowledgeable about the inner working of collection development or the serials crisis but they are knowledgeable about what they need right now in their academic careers.

I explain to my faculty, much like Thorn suggests, that the for-profit profiling systems are sometimes deceptive, corporate, and, often times, include illegal materials. While the illegality of the for-profit profiles often reaches faculty, who want to avoid any legal entanglements, the prevalence of these systems does not seem to be waning. The library’s 100% legal version pales in popularity in comparison to the others, who are often much more popular in certain fields. Who am I to tell professors not to choose these options in academic areas where for-profit profiles are more valuable than the library’s resources? Despite my feelings to the contrary, sometimes the for-profit profiles fit certain scholars well.

This brings me back to the issues surrounding SciHub and #Icanhazpdf. The important thing to remember about our users is that they spend much less time than we do worrying about these things. For them, the ease of use of a for-profit profile or a pirated pdf warehouse is an issue of access and not a preference towards profits or not-profits. While each choice we make as actors is political, I do not believe that our faculty who use these platforms are willfully ignorant or disloyal to their institutions, libraries, or librarians. They just want what they want, when they want it.

Carolyn Gardner and Gabriel Gardner speak to this in their College and Research Libraries article from earlier this year:

“Poor usability is also hindering our patrons from gaining access to materials. Librarians need to apply user experience thinking to all our online systems. At our respective libraries, we have to click multiple times just to discover if an item is own. Besides complicated discovery methods, software or holdings errors are possible…Librarians need to view these crowdsourced communities as alternatives that fill a gap that we have yet to meet as opposed to purely underground and shadowy communities.” (CRL February 2017 pg 144)

When the film and television industries felt the crunch from piracy they invested in Netflix and created Hulu, and when the music industry faltered we got Spotify and other streaming platforms. Each of these systems allowed for the quick access to media that users stole to gain access to. Libraries should view SciHub and for-profit profiling systems not as a betrayal but as a call to change and action. If SciHub is easier to use than the library we cannot blame our users if they use it over our complicated systems. If the for-profit profiling systems are superior to the library administered in someways, perhaps that is what our faculty are looking for.

We as librarians shouldn’t  “teach” our patrons to adapt to our obtuse and oftentimes difficult systems but libraries should adapt to the needs of our patrons. I really do not want to be at odds with my colleagues who call for education on these issues, because education is needed on these issues. After all, we are in the business of education. Yet, I believe that, in some ways, we should respect our faculty for what they do know. They know that they need resources to do their job. They should know that the library is often the best source for these resources. They also know that there are some platforms that provide easier access to these materials. I do not begrudge faculty who seek easier paths towards the resources they need to do their jobs, as much as I don’t begrudge undergraduates (or librarians) who use Wikipedia as a first source of quick info. It is a symptom of the age of easy access to materials online, and it is something that we as librarians should learn about what our scholars are looking for.

The second part of this is adpatation. We should not only respect our patron’s decision making processes but we should listen when  faculty seek sleazier means towards library services, and adapt to this need. If the for-profit profiles do something that my profiles don’t, I should think about ways to build my system to reflect those needs. If access to materials needs to be quicker than three clicks through our system, we should work to make it easier to gain legal access to materials. We shouldn’t claim that we know more than they do just because we deal with our obtuse systems on the daily, we should adapt to their needs when they arise.

 

No, Fair! Evolving Perspectives on Excessive Use in Research

Midterm brings its share of bustle to the library with last minute research questions to ask and copiers and printers to locate.  Library staff are also busy negotiating licenses, finalizing renewals, and troubleshooting access to the resources on which faculty and students rely. I’d like to shed some light on a subtler side of the troubleshooting task that, while not a frequent occurrence, is a growing concern for me as a librarian and researcher. The technologies that enable this bustle of research activity can at times inadvertently trigger what publishers call excessive use or excessive downloading.  This is considered a breach of contract according to the licenses for these resources.  Remedying this breach usually involves working with university IT security to identify, inform, and prevent such use, assuring publishers that the breach is cured, and publishers then unblocking the network IP or IP range necessary to restore access to content.

Recently, I’ve been contemplating researchers’ expectations when working with scholarly content and technology.  What technologies are they using?   Are they compatible across content provider platforms?  How might they trigger excessive use breaches?  What exactly is excessive use or excessive downloading in an online research environment?

What publishers think

Sometimes the publisher’s license language specifies the use of bots, link-checker, crawlers, spiders, automated software, and even indexing as excessive or unauthorized.  But more often, breaches associated with this activity are not explicitly defined, nor are they put in context of excessive use within the license. This leaves it fairly open to interpretation.

Publishers must consider the perspective of copyright holders, and typically enforce equivalent limitations for online use that they would for physical print materials uses.  It sounds reasonable, but because in reality we use print and online resources very differently, such licenses terms may give up fair use and other scholarly exceptions granted by copyright law.  Publishers take an even heavier hand when responding to excessive use breaches.  Blocking the user’s IP access, or sometimes an entire campus IP range, presumes malicious intent (which it almost never is).  This response also exaggerates the stakes involved and misunderstands what is necessary to perform digital research. Strict reinterpretation of print use restrictions in the online environment denies advances in research technology, from basic citation management software to APIs used for text and data mining.  It also ignores the very structure of the linked-data world we live in.

What most people think

When users learn that their actions violate library license agreements, their reactions are  surprised, apologetic, and most often confused.  While some may be aware of the technologies that makes excessive downloading possible, most don’t believe they constitute unethical or unlawful actions.  Breach of contract itself is kind of a boogey-man phrase that brings more readily to mind data breaches like Equifax.  If people are aware of breaches occurring in academia, attention more often goes to those involving individual student records.

According to one IT security expert I asked, the kinds of scholarly content breaches I’m talking about don’t even register on the scale of data sensitivity or security.  Unless credentials were stolen in order to download excessively, it is not security issue; it’s a copyright issue.  Publishers who treat copyright infringement as a security issue might be mitigating risk, but they are not serving or educating their customer.

What librarians think

Librarians, naturally, do approach this from the service and education mindset. Increasingly that means a not just serving end-users within the academy, but the general public who pay for the research through their tax dollars. As researchers assert the right to retain copyright of their own content and share it more widely, more diverse collaboration is possible, increasing potential for innovative research discoveries.  Libraries assert copyright exceptions and expose inequities in traditional publishing structures in order to make openness for innovation possible as well.

Aaron Swartz profileBy Fred Benenson - User: Mecredis [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll digress briefly to the story of Aaron Swartz  for illustration and comparison.  He was an advocate of openness, yet his deliberate action to hack and release scholarly content provides, I suppose, a perfect case for publishers’ insistence to treat copyright as a security issue.  In this case, the breach involved 4 million documents.  The scope in numbers (less than 3% of the Equifax breach) pales by comparison, especially considering nature of the data and the consequences (or lack of) to those responsible and to those harmed.

Rarely are scholars’ actions as deliberate or the stakes of intellectual property loss as high as  this scholarly breach (or breaches of individuals’ personal data).  In fact many legitimate uses of scholarly research technologies are being blocked even to those with “rights” to use them.  Some examples of technology uses I’ve seen publishers block include citation management software like EndNote that indexes and stores full text where available.  As early as 2006, librarians reported browser technologies that link and open an articles’ cited references, triggering such use.  What about mining text and data  to discover disciplinary concepts across time and from journal publications that span multiple publishers?  Innovating digital researchers  are developing their own programming for this, but can they use it?  Are there alternatives, and are they open or proprietary?

My role as an acquisitions librarian means I must balance the needs of publishers supplying the content we license with needs of users who access that content for their research and study.  That balance falls somewhere between stoic realism and OAnarchy for me.  But I’m still a teacher at heart, so educating all sides remains my goal. In the traditional, profit-based publishing system, where flat library budgets mean buying power decreases each year,  I must follow open access developments carefully, just as I must work to negotiate the best deal within these existing structures.  There is always room in this to educate publishers, librarians, and users.

Learning more about the tools researchers use, wish they had, or wish they could use without being blocked from access is my next goal. In my troubleshooting experience so far,  tools like EndNote, Papers on Mac, Abstraktr, RedCap, WGET are just a few.  So tell me…

What digital research
(or reference citation management)
technologies are your researchers using?  

 

 

Here We Go Again: Net Neutrality

With so much in the news since the new federal administration took office earlier this year it’s easy to be overwhelmed — I certainly have been, especially in recent weeks. So you might have missed the announcement that the Federal Communications Committee has proposed to repeal regulations on commercial internet providers that guarantee net neutrality. Net neutrality is an admittedly somewhat clunky term that requires companies that sell internet access to treat all content equally. As a concept it’s a bit easier to explain using the negative example: if net neutrality ended, companies like Verizon and Comcast could force consumers to pay different rates for different kinds of content, for example, high-bandwidth content like streaming video (think YouTube or Netflix) could be more expensive than content that doesn’t require as much bandwidth. Rolling back net neutrality could make it much more challenging for many of us to access the internet.

The FCC last proposed changing these regulations in 2014, at which point John Jackson wrote a concise overview — Keeping Up With…Net Neutrality — on ACRL’s website, which is a good place to start to learn more. Margaret Heller’s thorough post on the ACRL TechConnect blog is also a great read; in What Should Academic Librarians Know about Net Neutrality? she offers a clear explanation of how content gets from content providers via internet service providers to us as consumers. And how does this affect us as librarians? Content that our communities need could be made more difficult and expensive to access, costs that neither our communities nor our libraries may be able to bear. Even more troubling to consider are possible effects on information freedom and free speech, since as Jackson notes

The loss of net neutrality would add additional layers of economic influence on the structure of the web.

The FCC’s previous efforts to roll back net neutrality were met with a strong campaign from consumers and content providers that was ultimately successful. Both ALA and ACRL issued a statement late last month opposing the FCC’s plans. The FCC was accepting public comments on the proposal, which is scheduled to be reviewed at its open meeting on May 18th, but as of May 12th has entered a “sunshine agenda period” and is not currently accepting comments. But don’t despair — the good folks at the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) are making it easy for you to register your opinions about net neutrality. Visit their Dear FCC site to add your comment, which will be submitted by the EFF when the comment period reopens.

Privacy and Academic Libraries Right Now

I have a kid in high school whom I’ve often jokingly referred to as my in-house research subject. I’ve been interested to observe and think about the ways that he accesses information for school and non-school reasons, especially as he gets closer to the age of many of the students who use the library where I work. When he started high school I was initially surprised by the number of educational technology products he was required to use. Much of my grumbling around these systems stems from my concern that some of his classmates likely don’t have good access to computers or the internet at home, and that use of these systems puts a strain on some kids to find time to use the school or public libraries to do their homework. But lately I’ve also been concerned about the number of products my kid has to use, which is only growing. Beyond the very real password management considerations, I’m also increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of information these systems collect about him.

That’s one reason I’m looking forward to digging in to the new EFF report Spying on Students: School-Issued Devices and Student Privacy. From the executive summary of the report:

Throughout EFF’s investigation over the past two years, we have found that educational technology services often collect far more information on kids than is necessary and store this information indefinitely. This privacy-implicating information goes beyond personally identifying information (PII) like name and date of birth, and can include browsing history, search terms, location data, contact lists, and behavioral information. Some programs upload this student data to the cloud automatically and by default. All of this often happens without the awareness or consent of students and their families.

Yes, this report covers only K-12 schooling, but it’s of relevance to us in college and university libraries, too, and not only because we’ll be seeing many of those students at our institutions soon. The proliferation of learning analytics across campuses has been fueled by their highly-touted potential for using institutional student data to help them stay on track, ultimately increasing student retention and graduation rates. Libraries (and the vendors we do business with) have data about our patrons, too — how can we ensure that students’ privacy is protected when we (or other college offices) use that data?

A recent preprint of an article by Kyle M. L. Jones and Dorothea Salo — Learning Analytics and the Academic Library: Professional Ethics Commitments at a Crossroads — does a fantastic, thorough job of walking us through these issues. From the abstract:

[T]he authors address how learning analytics implicates professional commitments to promote intellectual freedom; protect patron privacy and confidentiality; and balance intellectual property interests between library users, their institution, and content creators and vendors. The authors recommend that librarians should embed their ethical positions in technological designs, practices, and governance mechanisms.

Beyond reading this report and preprint, what can we do to learn more and help protect our patrons’ privacy (and our own)? Keeping up with these issues is a good first step. For starters, I recommend the terrific work of education technology journalist Audrey Watters published on her Hack Education blog. Her longer pieces and transripts of her presentations go in depth on many privacy-related topics, and her Hack Education Weekly News tracks edtech across a huge range of publications and outlets.

We can also work to audit our own internal library systems and practices, and to push the vendors we work with to protect patron privacy. Further, we can increase digital privacy awareness among ourselves, our coworkers, and our patrons. At the library where I work we hosted a data privacy training for all library faculty and staff a few months ago, run by some of the smart folks from the Data Privacy Project. They covered digital privacy protection for us as technology users as well as ways that we can shore up privacy protections in the library. Their presentation materials are all available on their website, too, for any library to use to offer digital privacy workshops for their community; my college’s library is running one next week during Choose Privacy Week.