We are very pleased to have a paper from the DSS project accepted for the 2019 AOIR (Association of Internet Researchers) conference in Brisbane in October. This paper presents the initial findings from our ‘phase one’ investigations of how school data-driven platforms are engaged with. Here is our brief (1200 word) paper proposal ….
<USER NOT AUTHORISED> … TRUST AND MISTRUST IN THE PLATFORMATIZED SCHOOL
Neil Selwyn & Luci Pangrazio
This paper explores the ways in which trust is digitally embedded into everyday life. It does this through an in-depth exploration of the official online platforms that have come to dominate how students and staff experience the school which they attend and/or work at. As a prominent example of what can be termed the ‘institutional internet’, these online school platforms offer an ideal case study for the ways in which processes of (mis)trust guide the ways in which we encounter and engage with digital society.
Our over-arching question is deceptively simple: In what ways do students and teachers trust their school platform … and in what ways does their school platform reciprocate that trust? Of course, it is important not to frame school platforms in too agentic a manner. As such, our paper takes care to approach any school platform as a sociotechnical assemblage of people, code, physical infrastructure, finance, and institutional interests. In these terms, then, we are interested in the ways that an online school platform is shaped(by the decisions of its developers, vendors, schools and staff that implement it), and shaping(of the actions of students, teachers and how ‘school’ is encountered and experienced).In particular, the paper follows the digital sociology tradition of addressingissues of structural power, oppression and inequality (Daniels et al. 2016).
Research Questions & Methods
The paper examines the case of ‘Oracle’ [pseudonym] – a ‘school management’ platform that is widely used in Australian schools. As with all online platforms, Oracle is a centrally designed and controlled system, “linking independently developed and maintained systems” (Plantin et al. 2018). As a platform that facilitates the running of secondary schools, Oracle acts as the conduit for all student and teacher contact with their school work, interactions with others, and various record-keeping and administrative accountability within a school as well as with outside authorities. As is the case in most educational institutions, Oracle operates as an all-encompassing environment, with students and staff expected to engage with the platform website and app when inside andoutside school.
The aim of our investigations is to examine how various aspects of ‘trust’ (and ‘mistrust’’) are evident in the ways in which the Oracle platform is encountered and enacted within schools. As van Dijck (2013, p.26) writes platforms are a “set of relations that constantly need to be performed”, due to tensions between users’ needs and the profit-seeking aims that surround legitimate use. Drawing on data from a three-year research project examining datafication in three Australian high schools, the paper examines the following specific research questions:
- How is trust coded and configured into the system architecture of Oracle (e.g. in the form of access permissions, blocks, platform algorithms, and other coded features)? Who is responsible for these configurations, and in whose interests do they serve?
- How does Oracle work to engender trust and/or mistrust between its users (i.e. fellow staff and students) and how do these conditions shape the ways in which Oracle it is used?
- How do these platform-based manifestations of trust correspond with offline hierarchies and relations between the school and its students/staff?
These questions are addressed through various forms of empirical investigation. First, we have conducted thorough ‘software audits’ of the default Oracle software architecture and design, and then comparison audits of the three configured platforms with each school (i.e. the specific configuration, settings and permissions set-up by each school). These investigations were followed-up with in-depth interviews with school leaders, IT staff, and administrators about their configuration and deployment of the system with each school (total n=18). Finally, we also draw on in-depth interviews with students and teachers in each school about their use and experiences of the platform (total n=46 interviews).
Findings & Discussion
This empirical work is ongoing. So far, we have identified the following areas of interest, that we are continuing to investigate and make sense of.
- Oracle’s default system architecture is designed around an implicit model of mistrust – with the platform design and programming based on stereotypical hierarchical assumptions of school process and relations between users. This was evident, for example, in the sliding scale of default platform permissions and restrictions by student year group, staff seniority and assumed status. What an individual can do with this platform depends very much on who they are.
- Crucially, all three schools tended to defer to these default settings. School authorities expressed trust in ‘the system’ as purchased, and were unwilling to possibly compromise its ‘efficiency’ by reconfiguring it themselves. This trust in the platform developers was driven by broader school leadership discourses of ‘risk’ and ‘compliance’.
- Where local changes were being made, then disproportionate levels of trust were often put in (low status) IT support staff in each school who were tasked with configuring and setting-up the platform. These individuals were making ad hocdecisions on setting and maintaining permissions, filters and blocks. Tellingly, these decisions predominantly led to an exaggeration of status-driven hierarchies within each school, as IT staff configured Oracle into their own (often stereotyped) understandings of how the school was ordered.
- Tellingly, we find few signs of student and staff disgruntlement with these configurations. Instead, most students and staff rationalise their encounters with Oracle in terms of the general normative institutional conditions of compulsory schooling. That said, while outright resistance was scarce, we do find some vernacular uses and tactics to work around the system settings. This includes leaving flags in files, renaming files, sharing passwords, using non-Western scripts, illicitly resetting personal account parameters and importing various trust-related procedures from social media. Interestingly, this extra online labour was not a source of resentment or frustration, but justified by staff and students as part of the general effort required to negotiate the school day.
Our study provides a range of insights into how issues of trust are being played out within everyday online contexts – in this case, the institutionalised setting of school which itself is bound by long-established structures of control and (mis)trust. As such, the paper concludes by considering the key aim of critical data studies – i.e. how these present conditions can be challenged and changed – what alternatives are possible?
While there are a clear number of injustices in the way in which the school management system is being enacted in all three schools, we conclude that addressing these issues is not straightforward. Our research suggests that students’ and staff engagement with these online systems is coerced and that the implementation of Oracle does little to disrupt the overarching institutional arrangements and structural power differentials.
As such as any questions of “how we might regain trust in the system?” or “How might we change the system itself” relate to rethinking and/or changing the very nature of school itself. At the same time, however, potential might lie in exploring ways to support students and teachers to surreptitiously repurpose and/or reshape Oracle through their everyday actions.
Daniels, J. et al. (2016). Digital sociologies. Policy Press.
Plantin, J. et al. (2018). Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook. New Media & Society, 20(1), 293-310.
van Dijck, J. (2013). The culture of connectivity. Oxford University Press.