COVID19 is flattening the curve of teaching


In Italy, and surely elsewhere.

COVID19 is flattening the curve of teaching /img/garr-or-gafam.jpg

The title of this post is my own comment, and description, of what follows: a summary of another post by Maria Chiara Pievatolo, an italian teacher, titled Distance learning: private and proprietary, or free (as in freedom) and public?.

During Italy’s lockdown (see my own (Marco) reports here), wishing to avoid the proprietary platforms recommended for distance learning, I (Pievatolo) experimented with free alternatives, including the Jitsi-based teleconferencing systems at and those directly offered by one of its providers, the italian Research & Education Network named Consortium GARR.

Being able to afford anything else, Pievatolo tried only what GARR had made available for free for the lockdown. She then realized that in Italy she could not find anything better than the GARR services, but also that almost nobody seemed to know about them.

This is amazing, says Pievatolo, because if one works in any italian university or research institution, GARR is “the ground under our feet: it is both the network that connects us and the organization who manages it: GARR is the national ultra-broadband network dedicated to the education and research community.

The main mission of GARR is exactly to provide high-performance connectivity and to develop innovative services for the daily activities of teachers, researchers and students and for international collaboration.

GARR does this collecting as little personal data as possible, and without profiling any user in any way, for any purpose.

This is not the case with popular teleconferencing platforms such as Zoom, MS-Teams, G-Suite for Education and so on, whose copyright and privacy terms - at least for free of charge services - are variously questionable, as shown in this study.

It is no coincidence that the French government preferred to make its own teleconferencing service available to its officials and their interlocutors, which runs on Jitsi, because:

“the State has chosen to create and administer its own teleconferencing platform, hosted on its servers: its domain, combined with data encryption using a secure protocol, offers an additional guarantee of confidentiality of communications.”

What seems evident in France for state operations should be even more evident for teaching and research.

And it should be evident even if, just for the sake of argument, the commercial services provided by the large proprietary platforms complied with European privacy standards, without ever storing data in less regulated places: even in that case, there would be sensitive data entrusted to foreign datacenters, subject to foreign political and police choices.

In parallel, it should be equally evident that whoever provides those services designs an environment of options predetermined by him and by him alone; not, for sure, by the italian teachers, students and technicians who will have to bear the consequences of such decisions.

It seems, however, that this problem is not felt by the Italian institutions: universities - with a few exceptions, such as the Polytechnic of Turin which uses and develops free tools even more effective than Jitsi - have preferred the weakening offers from proprietary platforms.

The official page of the Ministry of Education dedicated to distance learning says nothing, at the time of writing, about GARR services. It only mentions Google, Microsoft and mobile operator TIM, giving the misleading impression that Italy is a country so poor in money and spirit that it does not [already!] have its own infrastructure for teaching and research.

In contrast, the homologous page of the French Ministry for Education does not invite you to contact Microsoft or Google, but entrusts distance learning and pedagogical continuity to a public body.

How can Italian institutions, starting with the Ministry, ignore GARR, that is [so to speak] their own product, and surrender control to private multinationals?

GARR not only offers these resources: it develops and shares the knowledge to use and manage them, in ways that “allow those who are not system administrators, or know nothing about virtualization techniques to create applications chosen from a catalog”, for example by activating an instance of Moodle in the GARR cloud, for their school or university.

Instead of this excellent public, in-house resource, however, italian universities seem to have preferred private and proprietary systems, because this option appeared to them cheaper and less burdened with responsibility than hiring and training italian systems engineers and programmers, to become masters of their trade.

Pievatolo says she is unable to calculate by herself if using GARR services in this circumstance would more or less expensive than expensive in money than “turning ourselves in” to GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft).

However, it is clear to her that a university and research community collectively unable to maintain and develop its own infrastructure, to control its data and to promote and develop its own skills will pay an infinitely high price in terms of knowledge, power and freedom.

Because that community will be increasingly dependent - inside environments designed by others - on systems and knowledge that it does not own. That community will not just put its data on someone else’s computer: it will also be used by tools and decision systems designed by others, who profit from the manipulation and surveillance trade. And it will train italian technicians who are unable to do without the same “solutions”.

My own take on the matter? This is 2005, all over again

The COVID19 nationwide lockdown that started in March 2020 took almost all of Italy like a kick in the groin… from behind: too unexpected, too quickly and too paralyzing, to do anything else but blindly grab the first support one came across, to avoid falling down. This is at least partially wrong, for sure, and actually under investigation now. But it is what happened. In such conditions, it would be unfair to not have at least some patience with decision makers, in any sector, who didn’t make the smartest possible moves.

What is unbearable in this story is that it has nothing to do with COVID19. It is that what Pievatolo just wrote about italian universities ignoring their own products is depressingly similar, conceptually at least, to what I wrote FIFTEEN YEARS AGO about University Rectors in Italy Promoting Proprietary Software.

COVID19 is accelerating the flattening of the curve (that is the diversity) of teaching that, at least in Italy, started long ago.

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