New, web-based systems for information filing and control are great…but are they coming at the price of shaving off layers of privacy, CLA’s Tim Vines asks. Should the ANU’s new Wattle system allow others to question your private reasons for missing an assignment deadline, for example?

Sorry Monica, I hope everything is OK?

I don’t know Monica, I’ve never met her. And I’m sorry I’m using her name in an article about privacy[1] (but I have a point to make). I just hope she’s feeling OK and not too worried about handing in a law assignment late. But, then again, maybe she got an extension. Good on you Monica! I wish I’d had one, I was up until midnight with that damn law assignment.

How do I know about a student I’ve haven’t met and – given the off-campus nature of the course – may never met? The answer, is Wattle, the Australian National University’s new online learning platform, which will be taking over from WebCT during 2010.[2]

In designing Wattle it appears many of the features which populate Web 2.0 websites have been included.[3] Whereas WebCT was a sometimes-used platform for sharing lecture notes, additional resources and occasionally as a venue for limited discussion, Wattle is half-learning environment, half-pervy version of Facebook, where everyone, friend or random can see whether you’ve looked at their page.

I might be reading the mood of the crowd wrong here. Maybe as a postgraduate I’m not as relaxed about these things as the first years who started class last month. However, I suspect I’m right. We may feel comfortable bragging to our mates about how we got trashed at Kremlin Bar and were too hung over to hand in an assessment, but what if the delay was caused by something more personal? Indeed, the Monica of this article might have got an extension, but that simply invites unwarranted speculation. Was it sickness? Computer failure? Or something more sinister?

Privacy might be a malleable concept but we all expect control over our information. Hell! even Facebook lets me turn on/off or limit what people can see. We might be comfortable sharing photos or drunken status updates with our friends but if that information was published in (say) a student newspaper how would we feel? What business do strangers have in knowing I handed in my assignment late?
How would you feel if your details were published in a student newspaper, or on its website.

Clearly, it’s the context of the message as much as the message which matters. I’ve removed surnames in this article but I still feel this is too much of an intrusion. But the information is there. For everyone enrolled in the course to see. And if you’re in a first year law, political science, chemistry or engineering course, that’s a lot of people!

Fundamentally, there is no reason for students to know when other students hand in an assessment. Anonymous Assessment (capitalised because it’s important!) means anonymous from other students as well as lecturers. After six years as an undergraduate, four of them in a college, I could count on two hands the number of assignments my friends showed me post-marking (and on one hand the number of friends who let me read over their essays before submitting them). An assignment is between the student and marker. The current Wattle course page is a gross breach of student’s privacy and should be altered. If the “Assignments Submitted” widget can’t be removed then can we please use student numbers instead of names?

Web 2.0 is great and all and social networking sites are a fun and invaluable way to stay in touch with friends. But ANU, if you have these features, also provide ‘privacy control’. That way, the next time I hand an assignment in late because of acute food poisoning[4] my name won’t be splashed all over Woroni or the Civil Liberties Australia website.

– Tim Vines

This is an edited version of an article that was first published in Woroni – the student newspaper of the Australian National University.

Tim Vines completed a BA/LLB(hons) in 2008 and was President of Bruce Hall in 2006. He is a director of and media spokesperson for Civil Liberties Australia: http://www.cla.asn.au/

[1] Irony or hypocrisy, take your pick.

[2] For Trivia points, WebCT stands for Web Course Tools. Just so you know.

[3] Web 2.0 sites include, for example, YouTube, Facebook, Myspace, Google Docs etc…

[4] Not that I am suggesting this was Monica’s excuse.

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