What we can learn from the ephemeral web

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Learning Platforms have flourished in the past decade, and as they have scaled with the rise of MOOCs, the data inside them has also become increasingly valuable. Different people see different value in this data. Some want to analyse data to predict outcomes and trigger early interventions when needed. Others want to analyse large datasets to advance machine learning techniques. Many more just see dollar signs in anything related to ‘big data’ so, in true startup fashion, they start collecting huge quantities of learner data now in anticipation of monetising it later.

But the learning technologies world needs to be mindful of the increasing unease among consumers about the storage of personal data by software providers and organisations, particularly among Millenials. Common concerns centre around data privacy issues, the ethics of amassing huge volumes of personal data, the exploitation of users by those collecting data, excessive government monitoring of citizens and the permanence of stored data.

In response to this, a world of new apps and websites are starting to emerge which have garnered the rather fetching title of the Ephemeral Web. It’s a world in which personal data is stored for a limited time only, maybe just minutes or seconds, and where anonymity is the norm. Many common web applications already have an ephemeral or anonymous alternative:

  • DuckDuckGo in place of Google (won’t store your search history)
  • SnapChat in place of Instagram (photo destroyed after 10 seconds)
  • Frankly and Wickr instead of Messenger/Skype/etc (messages “forensically deleted” seconds after delivery)
  • Whisper and Secret in place of Twitter (no public user identities are displayed)
  • Tor anonymous browser instead of IE/Chrome/Firefox
  • Incognito mode for Chrome browser (pages visited will not be stored in your browser history or cookie store)

The ‘big data’ obsessed world which triggered this backlash of ephemeral and anonymous tools among consumers is now colliding with the world of learning technologies. There are genuinely useful applications of big data in the context of education and work based learning. In the workplace, data collected around staff performance, competence, skills gaps and assessment results can be anonymised, aggregated and analysed, revealing great insights for any organisation. Analysing large educational datasets will help us to understand more about how we learn, will enable us to predict failure and intervene accordingly, to build adaptive learning tools that target appropriate learning activities to learners. Ultimately, it could help facilitate a learner-centric education system where each learner undertakes a learning path that is unique to them; the antithesis of the much criticised system that most of us have been put through, and characterised in this famous comic and quote:


We are already amassing vast quantities of data about learners through institutional LMSes, cloud-based learning platforms and MOOC vendors. Edtech vendors dream of a world where a learning record is taken from school through college and into the workplace, following a learner throughout their career as they switch jobs. A personal learning record, from the cradle to the grave, might not be far away for citizens of the UK, for example. Standards like Tin Can API and Open Badges are emerging that will allow learning technologists to track previously unimaginable amounts of learner data, unwittingly facilitating our emergence into this brave new edtech world.

Clearly, this will not sit comfortably with a lot of people, even if education uses of learner data are not as commercial as say Facebook or Google with consumer web data. It’s likely we’ll see a similar move to the ephemeral web in the learning technologies space as a backlash against the excessive tracking of personal data about learners’ capabilities, performance and achievements. So what might it look like? Would you have an ephemeral LMS? Or standalone ephemeral tools and apps? Here are a few potential scenarios we could see played out:

  • The self-deleting formative assessment. Students often undertake formative assessments at regular intervals so that they know what they need to focus on ahead of a final assessment or exam. Why does their LMS need to keep this data? Formative assessment results could be automatically deleted soon after completion.
  • The self-deleting competency assessment. One concern you sometimes hear from people implementing competency assessment tools is that their organisation’s employees might have the perception that the data collected will be used against them in performance reviews. Ultimately though, these organisations are just interested in facilitating personalised development plans. With that in mind, once a competency assessment is conducted and a personal development plan built, the actual assessment results could be automatically deleted from the system. This may encourage more honesty when undertaking competency self assessments.
  • Ephemeral forums and chat. Course forums and chat activities that delete messages automatically can be particularly useful where sensitive topics are being discussed. A benefit of ephemeral activities is that they facilitate candidness and spontaneity, which could be really useful during discussion activities and survey tools.
  • LMS data retention preferences. Why not introduce a personal profile setting in the LMS that allows a user to specify what data they want retained or deleted? This would be very easy to implement for most LMS vendors.
  • Open Badge triggers deletion of course data. Open Badges are oft-cited as a means of providing insight into the learning path a user undertook to gain their award or accreditation. However, badges can be exported into a users backpack, their publicly hosted learning profile. This is the same concept as a lifelong learning record but, importantly, the user owns it. So, once a course badge is exported from an LMS to a backpack, this could be a trigger for deleting learning records on the LMS.

There are likely many other interesting use cases for ephemeral or anonymous tools for learning. Please do leave a comment if you have any ideas related to this and get the conversation going. This one looks like being an interesting journey that is only just starting.

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