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Implications of giving students a public platform


anonymous profile picture
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05 September 2011, 9:44

Hi

As part of a JISC funded project I am involved in here at the University of Kent I am looking at the broader implications of HEIs providing their students with a public blogging platform and public profiles. I know that by default Mahara does not make these things public but a profile is made so at the click of a button and blogs/journals can be added to public views.

One aspect of this is the opportunity for those so inclined to abuse this platform and therefore expose the University to accusations of defamation, inaccuracy, obscenity, incitement etc

Another perhaps less considered aspect is the risk that students expose their own or colleagues confidential data without considering the risks involved.

We hope instances of either scenario are going to be the exception rather than the rule when we roll out Mahara in a couple of weeks time but we are re-visiting our IT guidelines and considering modifications to Mahara to remind users of exactly what  going public might mean. It was an obvious thing but still somewhat sobering to find that public profiles in Mahara are up there on Google. Of course this may be exactly what some users want but it does raise questions too.

I would be interested in any other users' opinions on this and especially like to hear if other insitutions have taken steps to  reduce risks which might result from going public via Mahara.

 

regards

Leo Lyons, Learning Research Analyst, University of Kent

anonymous profile picture
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05 September 2011, 17:46

Hi Leo,

Digital identity management should be one of the first things students are taught about when being introduced to ePortfolios, but sadly it isn't. One of the most common complaints we get at FolioSpaces is 'my lecturer has told me to create an ePortfolio and they don't have a clue how to use one themselves'. We don't say go and get in a car and teach yourself to drive, but with digital technologies is the norm. A profile in Mahara is a curious beast, as it is essentially a page, but with different permissions to regular pages. I love looking at profiles of random users, but often they are blank, and this is probably the best option for anyone who does not want a public persona. 

The reality is our students have already breached the institutional firewalls and they are 'out there'.  Facebook, Blogger, Google+, Flikr, Twitter, etc, etc. An understandable institutional approach would be to modify guidelines, but education would be more beneficial Laughing

Mahara is just one more social media platform. It is a scary place for business and institutions alike, as there is a certain lack of control. The big question to me (particularly as one currently piloting an open, social media marketing course) is how do closed education institutions hope to stay relevant in a connected world? What is the point of a portfolio that can't be used beyond graduation? 

Finally on your two main points  -

If defamatory comments are posted you can delete them as soon as they are brought to your attention. Not much more you can do than that. It is not my experience (with nearly 10,000 users on FolioSpaces) that it has been an issue. We are to boring a platform for that!! Better left to facebook to defame you.  On the last point, students can always share others work. Sensitive information will always be vulnerable on a platform like Mahara. Whilst defaults are private, it is desirable to share. Again this is a question of education. Personal reflections are a good case in point. Medical students come to mind. These should be kept private certainly but students also need to be taught how to reflect in an appropriate manner e.g. do not use patients and colleagues names etc even if it is private.

I think your project sounds really valuable, and I hope it marks the start of a new level of discussion about the appropriate use of ePortfolios.

Regards, Ian Knox

 

anonymous profile picture
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06 September 2011, 4:55

Hi Ian, I find much to agree with in your reply. We have had a pilot group of around 300 users for the last year and only a few have chosen to make their profiles public. What we don't know  (yet) is whether they deliberately chose to include personal information such as mobile phone numbers and home addresses or whether they just didn't think about it. One of the issues I am interested in is exactly what users understand by 'public'. It seems obvious but the meaining of so many words have been 'modified' by the way they are used online. ('momentarily' being the one that annoys me most!).

I take your point about Facebook, Twitter etc but they do have reasonably good systems for encouraging users to protect their information or only to limit it to friends. The community itself also regularly flags this up. Mahara out of the box does not, to my mind, provide sufficient protection - especially if a user makes their profile public. Our users are all adults and it could be said that it is their responbility to think about what they reveal about themselves however we do still have a duty of care to them and I shudder at the thought of the consequences of the 'wrong' person getting hold of personal data. We need to be as sure as we can that we are educating our users in the safe use of Mahara - not only to protect our users but also to protect the University against accusation of negligence.

Since I raised these issues Kent has decided to prevent users from making their profiles public (they can still make views public which could of course contain the same information as their profiles but requires more of a deliberate act than just clicking a button). I personally feel ambivalent about this decision and will be curious as to whether things remain that way. There are good arguments for saying that some students and particularly graduates might want their profiles to be Googlable.

On the subject of graduates I agree that we must move towards retaining Mahara access for alumni. especially as the export function in Mahara is somewhat limited. A previous project I worked on  - Logins for Life - made the recommendation that all alumni retained a user account at the university. This was somewhat controversial but many agreed. Getting money to pay for it is a different matter but the roll out of Mahara here can only add wind to our sails.

Leo

Engaging Alumni through PDP project worker

Project blog:- EAT-PDP

anonymous profile picture
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06 September 2011, 23:18

Really interesting Leo, that Kent has prevented users from making their profiles public. Public is the whole point of profiles, I would have thought. Still in a way it achieves the same end that I suggested, namely using a regular page as a profile. If a Kent profile was included in a page which was made public, that would have the same effect to I think.

When all is said an done privacy is still the responsibility of the user. 

One last thought on profiles and the Kent issue. It has some merit (although perhaps not intended). Again from my personal observation, there seems to be a large number of users who ONLY use their profile. It becomes their portfolio.  My feeling is this is because they don't know any better, rather than a deliberate act. Back to user education again.....

anonymous profile picture
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06 September 2011, 3:35

Leo, I have enjoyed reading about your plans and the comments from Ian. As the funder of a shared/multi-tenanted Mahara installation in NZ (www.myportfolio.school.nz) aimed at the school sector I share many of your concerns. While most users behave well most of the time misuse does occur. We have a number of steps to minimise and manage this, such as:
- Term of use making clear to all users their obligations
- Institution administrators to manage users in their school, both alleviating load from the site administrators but also because they know their users and can talk to them
- We have recently raised the visibility of institution administrators believing that people are more likely to behave if less anonymous
- Links/buttons to report portfolios and behavior if you wish

While the stakes are lower for schools and their students, misbehavior is probably more common. Maybe you can take something from our experience.

Paul.

anonymous profile picture
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06 September 2011, 5:12

Hi Paul

Your comments are useful. I think one of the keys to the success of Mahara in any institution will be engagement by the teaching and other staff. This should not be difficult to acheive as Mahara is a great tool for tutors as well as students but I know many will say there is no time in the curriculum for this or for tutors to learn how best to use it.

I am putting together a report of all my findings on this subject which will eventually be publicly available. On of the surprising findings for me was how the legal position of an institution might be changed according to whether they adopt a hands off approach but have a clear 'take down' policy for controversial content or choose to moderate everything before it goes public.  The latter does also require a good deal of staff time for an organisation of our size. I think it is comforting that most early adopters say abuse is rare but obviulsy contingency plans still need to be in place.

I like the idea of buttons for reporting abuse - gives the users community more involvement in the 'policing' of Mahara.

Please have a look at my blogs on this and feel free to join in there to. Thanks for taking the time.

regards

Leo Lyons

EAT-PDP Project Worker

(Project blog: EAT-PDP)

Kristina Hoeppner's profile picture
Posts: 4726

10 September 2011, 21:19

Hello Leo,

I agree with Ia that education is very important. Some issues could be solved quite easily. Furthermore, sometimesemploying common sense can also already help. E.g. if a student actively includes his address and phone number in his profile page and makes that profile public, he should know that others will see that information. Mahara does not by default make that information public to other users or the entire Internet.

Paul mentions that misbehavior can be reported in MyPortfolio. That is true for all Mahara installations. Each page has a "report objectionable content" link that send a message to the administrators who can then take action.

Cheers

Kristina

anonymous profile picture
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12 September 2011, 3:51

Thanks for your reply Kristina. I do agree but unfortunately I don't think we can always rely on common sense being used. We are not anticipating lots of problems with either abuse or people exposing their confidential details unwittingly but I still think we need to consider worst case scenarios. And part of that is making sure we have given clear guidance. I think we need to do this because we should try to protect our students (even from themselves) and also because we do not want to get into a situation where we could be accused of negligence. We are not making it impossible for our users to make public whatever they wish to, but making it less likely that someone will do that without realising what they are doing.

The 'Report Objectionable Content' button is a useful part of the armoury but  would not help where someone has made public data which is libellous, obscene, etc. The University already has T&Cs to cover these issues but we are examining whether the roll out of Mahara means we need to strengthen or adapt our current regulations.

Regards

Leo

Kristina Hoeppner's profile picture
Posts: 4726

12 September 2011, 6:41

Hello Leo,

In addition, you could see about the implementation of a "spam" filter that would filter for certain words. However, that may also produce false positives and would always need somebody to verify the filtered result. I am not aware that anybody has already developed that functionality, but it can be done.

Cheers

Kristina

anonymous profile picture
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Posts: 13

12 September 2011, 8:46

I think a spam filter might create a lot of work. We have 18 000 students across many different disciplines and we also have many international students so compiling a list of 'forbidden' words might not be so easy. I think the best approach is a combination of education and guidelines and a well-publicised and easy to expedite 'take down' procedure. This would be combined with current T&Cs and the use of appropriate sanctions.

Things might get a little more complex if we allow alumni access to Mahara as applying sanctions and delivering training will pose greater practical problems. It might be argued that alumni have less to lose so might not respond so well to a threat of sanctions. I suppose it also has to be considered that an alumnus who was less than happy with their time at the university (not that we have any of those you understand) might be more inclined to use a public platform such as Mahara to take a pop at the university or its staff. At the same time there is nothing to prevent a person using any other public platform to acheive the same end result but without the option for the university to take offending material down without resort to legal threats etc.

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