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Questions and concerns about DMA

Posted on: February 11, 2021

The details in the article, Application installed on students’ devices does not track personal information, reminded me about some unanswered questions on student data management and learner self-regulation.

First, some background on the device management application (DMA) that will be installed in all student-owned devices. It reportedly does not keep track of “location, identification numbers or passwords”. It should not.

But the DMA will “capture data on students’ online activities such as web search history… and device information such as the operating system”. If forensics can use those to identify a person, is that not “personal information”?

Consider how your typing rhythm can already be used to identify you or how the different sounds of a keyboard can be used to figure out what you are typing. Raw data generated by a person can be identifiable and personal data.

According to the tweeted news article, a petition against the DMA from around 6,000 individuals did not dissuade the powers-that-be. The authorities argued that data collection and remote monitoring is necessary to protect children from undesirable sites and behaviours. Cue scary sounds and imagery of pornography, gambling, predators, and screen time.

For argument‘s sake, let’s assume that the data is absolutely secure from hackers. It is, however, available to “appointed DMA vendors”. What might the vendors do with such data? They could use it to develop more applications that profit them (example: plagiarism detectors use student-papers for free but charge a fee for its service).

If the vendors slide on integrity or if data is hacked, the online preferences and habits of our students becomes a trove of ad targeting, market development, data bundling and reselling, etc. We need only examine our own experiences with entities like Facebook — we are not the customer, we are the product — to see how this might happen.

Declaring that student data will be securely stored, stringently controlled, and lawfully protected does not guarantee that the policies on all three will not loosen over time. Consider a recent lesson on how TraceTogether data was supposed to only be for COVID-19 contact tracing, but now can also be used to investigate seven forms of serious crimes.

The declaration also does not indicate an expiration and/or expunging of user data. Bluetooth data from TraceTogether is deleted every 25 days.

Another question to ask about data use is: What will MOE/vendors do if the monitoring results in red flags? The alerts could be due to truly nefarious activities (example: the youth who recently self-radicalised and wanted to attack Muslims) or legitimate research on terrorism. What systems are in place in terms of algorithms and human monitors? What constitutes are reasonable response?

Perhaps my questions have already been answered but have not been made public. Perhaps my questions might provoke some reflection.

But I certainly want to provoke some thought and action in the area of student self-management. Might using tools like the DMA create a reliance on them? Such tools trigger extrinsic motivations, e.g., fear of detection for visiting unauthorised sites or waiting for pings from the system to meet deadlines.

We need such tools to be scaffolds. Scaffolds are removed from buildings as they are constructed because they stand on their own. What else will be put in place to ensure that our students learn to stand independently and think responsibly on their own?

I know of a few schools that rely on educational and social scaffolds instead of DMA-like tools. Students use their phones and computers like we might at home. These devices are unencumbered as we wish or as locked down as we make them. We decide.

The message that tools like the DMA as all-powerful and monitoring might provide some comfort to the public. This is disingenuous because more nuanced questions have not been addressed about their use. Equally, not enough emphasis has been placed on actually nurturing independent and responsible learners.

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