Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Blogging in the Classroom: Results of an Experiment...

For years now, academics have touted the potential of blogs as a learning tool. They can foster discussion and dialogue among students and, as a low-stakes form of writing, may also help improve writing skills and develop a stronger understanding of the course content.

The only problem... no one knows if they actually work.

As an educator, I've grown increasingly frustrated with the complete lack of quantitative data on the subject. There does not exist any research study on the value of blogs on the classroom, only hypothesizing and conjecture.

This summer I sought out to address this. Here are the details of my experiment... Teaching three sections of "U.S. Government & Politics", each with approximately 35 students, I assigned one of the three main blogging methods to each section as a required part of the curriculum.

  1. Method #1 - There is one class blog. The instructor writes the posts, and the students are required to leave comments on those posts.

  2. Method #2 - There is one class blog. The students are required to write at least one original post, and also to leave comments on other student's posts.

  3. Method #3 - There is no class blog, but instead each student creates and maintains their own blog. Students are required to write original posts on their own blog as well as leave comments on their classmates' blogs.

I'm currently in the process of analyzing the quantitative data that resulted from implementing each method in each class section. What I'm interested in discovering is to what extent blogging affected, or did not affect, students' 1) formal writing assignment grades and 2) grades on exams, which focus on course content.

Here's a preview of the results. First of all, Method #3 was a complete waste of time and I strongly urge other instructors to never even consider it. The topics of the students' blog posts were all over the place, directionless, and, consequently, the comment-based discussion, never got off the ground. Many students spent more time playing with the blog's graphic design than on the content itself.

On the other hand, Method #1 was fabulous, and this is what I'll be implementing again in my classrooms in the future. Since only the instructor was writing the posts, those posts were able to stay on topic and focus on themes covered in class. Students' comments, as a result, also largely stayed on topic, and several students expressed how the activity clarified ideas for them in writing their formal term paper. Many also seemed to enjoy having a venue to express their opinions on political issues to an audience, despite occurring within the limits of academic guidelines.

Finally, Method #2 came out somewhere in the middle. Having the one class blog translated into the students staying focused on the content of the blog assignment, rather than being distracted with design and maintenance, and that's a positive thing. However, similar to Method #3, the freedom to write original posts led to students often veering quite a bit off topic (at least from my instructor's perspective). While I wasn't thrilled at that development, the bright trade-off was that students were far more active in leaving comments on each other's posts, often going far beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment. This terrific bottom-up discussion and dialogue took on a life of its own which, while it may not have always been ideal as far as the course material, is nevertheless one of blogging's principle characteristics and, in that sense, was still quite worthy.

In conclusion, to any instructors out there, my experiment doing a comparative analysis of all three methods of blogging in the classroom leads me to recommend, whole-heartedly, Method #1. Actual quantitative data to follow shortly...


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Future of Reputation: Solove's Middle-of-the-Road Approach...

In the scholarship on Internet privacy, a new subfield has emerged which focuses on Reputation. In an age of digital social-networking, our reputations - and the means by which they're shaped - are significantly transformed. Information about ourselves that was once "scattered, forgettable, and localized" is now becoming "permanent and searchable". Whatever social transgressions we might have, or whatever gossip about us circulates, - whether true or not, - in the past these would have eventually been forgotten and our lives would move on. However, today with Google archiving everything about us forever, and making it all easily searchable, these permanent "digital rap sheets" follow us and impede our ability later in life to be who we want to be. As one blog commentator wrote, "Right or wrong, the Internet is a cruel historian".

Think of what teenagers and college students post on Facebook. Is it fair that a Digital Scarlet Letter comprised of embarassing gossip, which may or may not be accurate, follow them for the rest of their lives? How can privacy law play a role in determining fairness?

The principle book on the subject is The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet by Daniel J. Solove. It explores the online reputation dilemma in-depth citing numerous examples and teases out the complexity of how a reasonable expectation of privacy can be preserved even at a time when so many people voluntarily share revealing details about themselves in public cyber spaces.

Solove then takes a legal approach in proposing what ought to be done about the problem - sort of. He takes issue with privacy law as it currently exists being too binary - meaning that the law generally holds that once something is exposed to the public, it can no longer be considered private. While insisting that the law definitely has an important role to play, it works best, he says, when it can hover as a threat in the background but still allow most problems to be worked out informally - through mediation and binding arbitration. Specifically, the law can act as a credible threat yet also keep lawsuits in check by, first, limiting damages, and second, by requiring that plaintiffs must exhaust all informal, or "alternative dispute resolution", mechanisms before a case would go to court. By doing so, "the law should cast a wider net, yet have a less painful bite". He labels this a "middle-of-the-road" approach that takes into consideration a more "nuanced" view of privacy.

Now bring this back to reality and think of Facebook. Certainly, it's far too simplistic for the law to only recognize that if you're in public then you have no privacy. Solove is absolutely right in pointing out how inadequate that statement is in a modern Facebook context. Privacy can no longer be thought of as binary, but as "a complicated set of norms, expectations, and desires". Indeed, we should expand the law's recognition of privacy so that it covers more situations.

But here's where Solove loses me. After giving detailed reasons for why the law should be reformed and recommendations for how to do it, he then says that the law really isn't the primary solution at all. Social norms are. He supports Lior Strahilevitz' claim that "information should be considered private if it remains within a confined group - even if that group is rather large". Information should not be taken beyond the social circle in which it was originally shared. He goes on to say that "we all have pretty good intuitions about how gossip travels" and it is this key intuition that's at the heart of social norms on the issue.

Does anyone else see a major problem in defining privacy based on confined social circles? Don't many, if not all, of our social circles often overlap?

Relying on "intuition" weakens Solove's argument considerably. If the law truly is a "puny instrument" compared to norms, then why stake out a legal approach in the first place? Only at the very end of the book does he explore norm-based solutions, and they're pretty hokie, at that, citing things like better education, changing the opt-out defaults on websites, and bloggers adhering to a voluntary code of ethics.

His legal argument is the better one, and I would've been more satisfied if he had just left it at that. There was no need to hedge his bet.

That said, The Future of Reputation is still perhaps the single best canonical book exploring the subject of online reputation, and it's definitely worth reading. My only criticism is that, despite making an awful lot of terrific thought-provoking statements, in the end I'm left a bit confused, scratching my head over what it is that he's actually suggesting.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Do We Need a Social Media Kill-Switch in the Wake of the London Riots?

Following the recent riots in London and surrounding cities, the British government is now considering whether it should seek to ban people from using social networks and other communications technologies during future times of crisis.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged: "we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality".

Is there truly a need for a social media kill-switch?

It is certainly true that different social media outlets played a very prominent role in turning the original clash into a much larger and more widespread riot. Blackberry Messenger and Twitter, in particular, are receiving the lion's share of the blame, even helping criminals to plan some of their activities.

However, Tony Hallett has posted some first-hand perspective that proves an insightful counterpoint. Hallett lives in Colliers Wood, one of the neighborhoods ravaged by the rioting and looting, and despite having to personally deal with the aftermath in his hometown, he nevertheless argues that giving the government a social media kill-switch would do far more harm than good.

At the weekend, there was a community meeting. There was a lot of confusion, anger and words of support from all there - ordinary residents as much as police, fire service, local councillors, business leaders and our local MP, who has called Colliers Wood home most of her life. But one thing most agreed on was that keeping the community informed about what's going on, not letting those living alone feel helpless or misinformed, is critical. While not everyone is online - and there are clearly ways to keep that minority in the loop - online should be key.

As much as social media may have exacerbated the rioting while it was taking place, it has also played a very positive role during the aftermath - both in organizing a post-riot clean-up and helping police to identify the criminals involved. Couple this with Hallett's testimony of how, even during the riots, social media helped to keep the sense of community somewhat intact and may have even prevented a complete and total breakdown of civil society (think Hurricane Katrina), and you at least have a very reasonable argument suggesting that the positives outweigh the negatives. At least that's the way a lot of the people experiencing this event first-hand see it.

To suggest that governments need a social media kill-switch to maintain law and order is quite an overreach. Besides, if the public is aware that their governments will investigate Blackberry and Twitter communications after-the-fact, then rioters and looters would be pretty stupid to ever use them for organizing their criminal endeavors in the first place.


Friday, August 12, 2011

The Internet Sales Tax War...

On July 1st, a new law went into effect in California imposing a sales tax on Internet purchases. From online retailers like Amazon.com, we've grown accustomed to not having to pay any sales taxes, but after years of budget deficits and governments increasingly desperate for new sources of revenue, is the time now ripe for an Internet sales tax to be imposed?

Lots of states apparently think so and are attempting to do just that. However, the question is whether states can force out-of-state merchants to collect sales tax on purchases by in-state residents.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that the answer was "No" - that states cannot force retailers without an in-state presence, or "nexus", to collect sales tax. As The Economist notes, the Court's justification was that America has over 8,000 different sales tax jurisdictions that are "constantly changing their rules and are not even aligned with zip codes". Requiring online retailers to collect a different sales tax rate for each purchase depending on where that customer lives would be an enormous burden and would chill interstate commerce with disastrous consequences.

The problem is especially acute with Amazon and California. A large amount of Amazon's business stems from its local "affiliates" - entrepreneurs who link to Amazon from their own websites and earn a commission. California is arguing that if Amazon has any affiliates residing within its borders, that constitutes a "nexus" and therefore all of Amazon is taxable.

In response, when other states like New York, Colorado, and North Carolina have used this argument in the past, Amazon simply cut its links with in-state affiliates. Rather than having to deal with the 8,000-strong jurisdictional headache, Amazon's preference is to simply stop conducting its affiliate business in that state entirely. As a result, Rhode Island has actually confirmed that it has raised absolutely no new money whatsoever from its sales tax efforts.

Nobody is the winner in this game - not the online retailers, not the state governments, and certainly not the consumers. If (and it's a big If) Internet sales taxes are now viewed as necessary and are going to be imposed, what's needed is federal legislation that would standardize America's many different sales tax regimes. Only through this method - by alleviating the collection burden on businesses and by actually generating more revenue for the states - might such as sales tax work.


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Frustration with the Commerce Department's Cybersecurity Green Paper...

Cybersecurity remains one of the most important national issues that the public has no interest in whatsoever. Despite academics and industry professionals pleading their ever-growing concerns, and despite media outlets like CNN devoting entire hour-long specials to the issue, the public remains extremely apathetic.

Until recently, cybersecurity policy was handled by two main players - The Department of Defense focuses on cyberwarfare and military operations while the Department of Homeland Security focuses on protecting the "critical infrastructure" of the Internet that would be vital during emergencies; for example, the banking and telecommunications sectors.

The Commerce Department is now weighing in as well. They have released a Green Paper titled "Cybersecurity, Innovation and the Internet Economy". Its focus is on the "Non-Critical Infrastructure" sector - which it will now call the "Internet and Information Innovation Sector" - which basically refers to private ISPs, website operators, and software and service providers.

So what's the big deal? Is this just yet another bureaucratic classification that adds more complexity to an already highly complex issue?

Because the paper emanates from the Commerce Department, its assumptions are quite clear. First, it claims to be guided by the fundamental principle of trust. Trust is vitally necessary in order for consumers to participate actively in the cyber-economy, thus it shouldn't be surprising to see it listed as the first priority in a Commerce Department security wishlist.

The second principle is "a commitment to multi-stakeholder policymaking as a tool for adapting to the dynamically changing nature of the Internet". This is extremely similar to the approach used by the Homeland Security Department and is of great interest to policy geeks. But another way of phrasing it is that the government openly admits it can't do much to protect the Internet's decentralized private assets, so it will rely on the many businesses involved to design and adopt completely voluntary measures. In other words, "multi-stakeholder" means that the government isn't going to take care of it.

What else? The paper's actual recommendations for enhancing cybersecurity include four objectives: 1) Enhancing Internet privacy, 2) Improving cybersecurity, 3) Protecting intellectual property, and 4) Ensuring the global free flow of information. Certainly, these are all worthy goals, however, again it shouldn't be surprising that the Commerce Department is conflating the interests of the business community with national security interests. One just has to wonder, though, how preventing a teenager from downloading a Beatles Album off BitTorrent somehow protects the nation from a cyberterrorist attack?

I don't mean to come across as overly harsh or critical. An official paper calling for cybersecurity policy being extended into the "non-critical" sectors of cyberspace is actually long overdue, and the Commerce Department should be commended for taking the initiative and recognizing that, in the face of a massive cyberattack, there are indeed many things worthy of protecting besides just the websites of Verizon and Bank of America.

The frustration among professionals is just that the Commerce Department's approach, which is exactly the same as Homeland Security's approach, relies completely on voluntary opt-in measures being adopted by literally millions of private Internet companies - and there's not a person alive who believes that's ever going to happen. Meanwhile, the average individual, whose information is what's most vulnerable to a cyberattack, is completely helpless in the absence of any regulation.

The Green Paper states...

Our approach recognizes a key role for government in convening stakeholders and leading the way to policy solutions that protect the public interest as well as private profits, but pure government prescription is a prescription for failure.

As a general principle, I actually agree. But since when did we stop seeking government solutions to issues of national security?


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Google+ and the Facebook Natural Monopoly: Is Market Competition the Key to Internet Privacy?

One of my students, whose husband apparently works for Google, recently asked if I thought Google+ was going to succeed in giving Facebook a run for its money.

I had to reply no. Facebook is quickly becoming what economists refer to as a "natural monopoly" - meaning that, as users build Friend Lists hundreds of people long and upload thousands of photos and other types of content, they become more firmly entrenched in the service. Facebook has a powerful inertia that makes it ever-less likely for users to switch to a competitor. For these reasons - entrenched users and higher switching costs - it's going to be nearly impossible for Google+ to gain any meaningful traction.

But if Facebook is, or is on its way toward becoming, a natural monopoly, what are the implications for privacy?

Ruben Rodrigues examines this question in "Privacy on Social Networks: Norms, Markets, and Natural Monopoly" (a chapter in The Offensive Internet by Saul Levmore and Martha C. Nussbaum).

His argument is based on the assumption that market competition is the key to securing privacy rights.

He then asserts that the best way to ensure competition is, first, to apply existing anti-trust laws to bar anti-competitive conduct. This hardly seems controversial.

Second, he says, the next best way to ensure competition is by keeping switching costs low by requiring that data be highly portable and interoperable. In practical terms, this means requiring Facebook to share your login information with 3rd parties so that competitors can more easily transfer your Facebook account to a different service without you losing your contacts, photos, and other information. The logic is that by making it easier for people to leave Facebook and go to another service, the market will stay competitive and services will continue competing for users on privacy grounds.

This strikes me as a very counter-intuitive claim. Would sharing my login information with 3rd parties really help enhance my privacy?

Rodrigues seems to be suggesting that each of us ought to purposely further damage our privacy in order to somehow protect it in a larger theoretical context. Forgive me for being a little bit skeptical. The thought of making my login information accessible to even more parties, for my own good, instinctively makes me cringe. And I doubt I'm alone.

Instead, I adhere to the notion purported by Lior Strahilevitz in "A Social Networks Theory of Privacy" - that "just because someone has consented to disclosing information to a set group of people does not mean the individual has consented to broader, public disclosure".

Ultimately, Rodrigues makes a strong case for how market competition is key to securing privacy rights, but puts forth an overly academic (read: impractical) argument in suggesting recommendations for how that competition is to be accomplished.

Would people's privacy be better protected if both Google+ and Facebook were strong players in the space? Perhaps. But requiring Facebook to provide all of its user data to any- and all-comers? Yikes!