What can learners and teachers do to limit corporate surveillance while working online?

Big Brother Google is watching youSince security and surveillance expert Edward Snowden blew the whistle and leaked damning NSA documents to investigative journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the implications and ramifications of the NSA’s dragnet surveillance, partly enabled by IT giants like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, have been cause for concern everywhere, and not least in elearning. As educators we bear a responsibility to our learners and other educators to protect their basic civil rights wherever and whenever we can. By being well-informed about internet surveillance and the tools and strategies available, we can offer useful, effective advice and help to reduce both the quality and quantity of personal data collected from them in the course of their online studies and work.

Why is internet surveillance an important issue?

First, here’s the scary bit. Below is an interview with a Journalist who’s looked into the business of internet surveillance:

“Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin joins us to discuss her new book, “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.” Currently at ProPublica and previously with the Wall Street Journal, Angwin details her complex and fraught path towards increasing her own online privacy. According to Angwin, the private data collected by East Germany’s Soviet-era Stasi secret police could pale in comparison to the information revealed today by an individual’s Facebook profile or Google search.”

So, What can learners and teachers do to limit corporate surveillance while working online?

What advice can we give and what measures can we put in place? Are they practical, understandable, and easily do-able? Here’s some practical suggestions to get the ball rolling…

Turn off local storage on Flash Player

Turn off local storage on Flash Player: Local Shared Objects (LSOs) are used extensively by surveillance organisations, including Google, because they reveal more information about users’ computers and software, making it easier to uniquely identify individuals, and LSOs aren’t deleted when you clear/purge your browsers’ cache, i.e. they’re more persistent. The benefits of allowing LSOs is minor and easy to live without.

Install a cookie manager

Along with your IP address and HTTP headers, cookies are the primary means of identifying and tracking individuals. There are several cookie manager extensions/plugins available for browsers that manage cookies for you. Those that you want to keep, e.g. for sites that you want to remain logged into, you can white-list them, everything else gets deleted when you navigate away from the site. My favourite is Self-destructing cookies for Firefox.

Block JavaScript from surveillance sites

This one’s a bit more problematic and can “break” page displays on some sites. If at all practical and workable, JavaScript blocking prevents some very detailed surveillance from taking place. From my experience with using free and open source web analytics software, I’ve witnessed how rich and detailed the collected data can be. There are two main approaches; white-lists and black-lists. A white-list is a list of approved sites to allow JavaScript from, a black-list is a list of sites to block JavaScript from. Both require someone to maintain the lists and block or allow new sites as they come up: many sites nowadays use CDNs and/or 3rd party libraries for JavaScript libraries and blocking them can make many sites unusable. In short, you have to maintain a list of legitimate JavaScript CDNs and 3rd party libraries as well as for the individual sites. I use a white-list plugin for Firefox called NoScript.

The added benefit of JavaScript blocking with white-lists, is that they also prevent the vast majority of web malware attacks. JavaScript has consistently been identified as the primary technology used in malware attacks by all the major anti-virus firms.

Use privacy protecting search engines

Rather than use Google, Yahoo!, or Bing as your search provider, why not use one of the more ethical and privacy protecting services? They don’t store your search history or your IP address and as an added advantage, they don’t filter their search results according to a personal search history profile thereby preventing the “filter bubble” phenomenon which can hide useful, relevant results from users.

Automatically generate random tracking noise

The browser plugin for Firefox and Chrome TrackMeNot periodically generates random but convincingly genuine search strings and sends them to search engines that may be tracking you. This “muddies” the profile they can build up on you, making it less accurate and less revealing about you.

Use different browsers

Using different web browsers, e.g. Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, Chromium, and Opera, for different purposes puts up barriers between surveillance companies that use the same tracking techniques, e.g. “+”, “Like”, and “Share” buttons (In many cases, you don’t have to click on them, they’re watching you anyway), across multiple websites. For example, use one browser for searches and another one for social networking sites, and another one for logging into email (or better still use a free and open source email client that doesn’t send tracking data to surveillance companies, e.g. Thunderbird.

Use a privacy protecting proxy

This is one that organisations’ IT support can implement on their users’ behalf. A proxy can filter out personally revealing information from HTTP requests and in some cases hide users’ IP addresses.

Why if my school/college/university/institution has switched to using Google services?

It would be expensive and difficult to switch back, so more than likely not a feasible option for many organisations. The best advice I can think of is to create Google accounts specifically for use with that educational organisation and don’t use those for anything else and, if you already use Google services, e.g. GMail, Google+, and/or GCalendar, migrate to a different service provider; preferably a more ethical one, if that’s possible. The idea is to create as many barriers as possible between your private life and your studies and work, and reduce the quality and quantity of your personal information and internet usage habits that are available to one single surveillance organisation.


TOR (The Onion Router) is at the extreme end of anti-surveillance techniques. It’s quite restrictive and only practical for searching for and viewing a narrower range of web media, e.g. viewing Flash-based media such as video and audio can reveal personally identifiable information thereby defeating the purpose of using TOR. TOR would be particularly useful for users researching politically and culturally sensitive topics, e.g. child abuse, sexual behaviour, terrorism, copyright infringement, and political activism, that might lead to inappropriate interventions by security and law enforcement agencies (or get followed around the web by some highly inappropriate targeted advertising!) It’s widely used by journalists, political activists, and people who want to circumvent censorship and surveillance around the world. TOR comes in a ready configured, optimised, easy to use, standalone package called the TOR Browser Bundle which can also be run from a USB thumb drive or CD ROM.

In summary

These measures cannot prevent surveillance entirely but they can significantly reduce the quality and quantity of data that corporations and government security agencies can collect about you. If you can add suggestions to this list that are practical, understandable, and easily do-able, please participate in the discussion. I’ve linked to this article from Moodle.org community forums. Joining Moodle.org is free and quick, and a great place meet elearning professionals and discuss things that matter to you and to them. (Disclosure: Moodle.org uses Google Search and Analytics but I’d like to get that changed!)

Update: Do you want to get started with Moodle?

BitNami MoodleBack in 2012 I wrote the article, Do you want to get started with Moodle? which turned out to be one of the most read and most cited articles on this blog. A lot has happened with software and web tools in the following two years so I’ve decided to write an update to it. I’ll be featuring a free and open source localhost server and web app installers from BitNami. For the record, I have no affiliation with BitNami or anyone from BitNami and have had no contact with them about writing this article.

Why run Moodle on your computer?

There are many benefits to having your own version of Moodle on your personal computer. Here are a few examples:

  • An easy way to try out and learn to use Moodle for free without making any commitments, renting servers, etc.
  • A safe sandbox where you can try things out before putting them out on the world wide web.
  • An offline environment where you can create, develop and test learning activities, resources, and courses in private before uploading them onto a public server.
  • Moodle pages will load faster, shortening the time it takes to develop activities, resources, and courses.
  • Install, test, and make sure that 3rd party Moodle plugins and services work as expected and meet your specific needs on your computer rather than on a public server.

Why write this update?

Since I wrote the original article, I’ve run into some technical difficulties with more recent versions of the localhost server (Wampserver) software I originally recommended, especially for running more recent versions of Moodle, e.g. 2.5 and 2.6. In my search for solutions I came across a number of other developers and Moodle users that were having similar issues. The solutions were far from simple or easy to resolve and so I thought it would be a good idea to find something simpler, easier, and less problematic to run Moodle on your local computer.

Why BitNami?

BitNami provides free and open source localhost installers that anyone can install and get working with the minimum of technical knowledge and, as you’ll see later in this article, the process is about as simple as it can be. There are two main options to get started with BitNami and Moodle. Let’s get started…

Option 1: Install Moodle only

The first and simplest is the all-in-one Moodle installer (-AMP stack + Moodle), which is available on Linux, Windows, and Mac. Download the appropriate one for your operating system, run it, and follow the onscreen instructions.

Important! When you have completed the installation process and you have your Moodle installation up and running and you are logged in, edit your user profile, change your user name and password, and write them down. If you don’t, you can end up getting locked out of your Moodle when you log out and have to uninstall and go through the installation process again.

Option 2: Install Moodle + other web apps

Using the previous installation method makes it difficult to install other web apps alongside Moodle, e.g. WordPress, Joomla, or ownCloud. Luckily, BitNami provides a basic “-AMP stack” installer (AMP = Apache + MySQL + PHP) which allows you to install any number of web apps along side each other. This provides a base localhost server that you can install Moodle and other web apps onto:

Important! The BitNami -AMP stack installer will ask you to provide a database password. Write your database password down and keep it in a safe place. You’ll need it to install Moodle and other web apps. Now you’re ready to install Moodle. Here are the modules to download and run that install Moodle on your -AMP stack:

Important! Again, as with the stand-alone Moodle installer, when you have completed the installation process and you have your Moodle installation up and running, and you’re logged in, edit your user profile, change your user name and password, and write them down.

Moodle logoWhat’s next?

If you’re new to learning management systems in general and/or Moodle, please be aware that they are large, complicated, but powerful and flexible software and so it takes time and effort to learn to use them. Be patient with yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whatever your interest or area of expertise, there are many books, tutorials, and courses available to help get you started. I also recommend:

Using chat to facilitate more interactive classes

chatHere’s how you can make your face to face lessons more inclusive and interactive quickly and simply by using a chat session during class, and open up a range of benefits that aren’t immediately apparent.

How does it work?

Before a face to face lesson or lecture begins, the tutor/teacher/TA opens or schedules a chat room in the course on the school’s, organisation’s, college’s, university’s, or institution’s Moodle*. All the class participants login and join the chat session. They can use their laptops, netbooks, or mobile devices. Now everyone can submit questions, requests, and comments and everyone can see each others’ during the lesson or lecture.

*Or any chat client on an elearning platform that has appropriate user management, privacy, and oversight facilities (e.g. most commercial chat services such as Facebook, Google+ don’t allow right of audit, which is necessary addressing ethical and behavioural issues), and that admins, teachers, TAs, and learners can access transcripts of previous sessions for learning and professional development (PD) purposes.

How does this affect the classroom dynamic?

  • All learners, even in a relatively large class, have the opportunity to participate in significant and meaningful ways.
  • Learners don’t have to raise their hands to interrupt the flow of the class just to have their question, request, or comment expressed and considered.
  • Less gregarious learners don’t have to compete for attention/get noticed and can therefore contribute their questions, requests, or comments more easily; everyone has an equal voice.
  • Learners can see their peers’ questions, requests, or comments whether they are addressed/focused on or not in the lesson.
  • Teachers/tutors can choose which questions, requests, and comments, in what order, and when to address/focus on.
  • Points raised by learners can be dealt with appropriately and in a timely manner and never “get lost in the moment.”
  • The transcript of the chat session is an invaluable record of what actually happened and when during the class, making it an excellent resource for critical reflection.
  • Teachers/tutors can review the transcript to see where the lesson could be improved and/or consider alternatives.
  • Teachers/tutors can see who’s participating more or less than they should be and find out why.
  • Teachers/tutors can assess learners based on their participation both quantitively and qualitatively even if it didn’t get addressed/focused on in class.
  • There’s a record of questions, requests, and comments that it may not have been appropriate to address/focus on during the lesson but could provide productive avenues of inquiry in subsequent classes.

Could it also get learners off of Facebook during class?

Implementing star-ratings in Moodle

star-ratingsFollowing the upsurge of interest in gamification* of learning (not to be confused with “edugames”), this is a quick “How to” article for a question that seems to come up a lot these days: “How can I implement star-ratings in Moodle?”

How to implement star-ratings in Moodle

Moodle already has an elaborate, editable, and adaptable grading and rating system built in so the process is relatively simple:

  1. Log in to Moodle as an administrator (editing teachers can create scales for their own courses too)
  2. Go to Site administration > Grades > Scales
  3. Add a new scale
  4. Fill in the Add new scale form, e.g.
    • Name: Stars
    • Scale: ☆☆☆☆☆, ★☆☆☆☆, ★★☆☆☆, ★★★☆☆, ★★★★☆, ★★★★★
    • Description: (optional)
  5. Save

That’s it. Now, when you create/edit activities that support ratings, i.e. Forums, Glossaries, and Databases, the “Stars” rating will be available under the grading heading. By the way, you don’t have to limit your ratings to stars; you can also use more descriptive (text) ratings that inform learners in more meaningful ways, e.g.:

  • Scale: Please tell us more, Interesting, Insightful, Highly perceptive


  • Scale: difficult to understand, fluent, complex, accurate, fluent and complex, fluent and accurate, complex and accurate, fluent complex and accurate


  • Scale: I strongly disagree, I disagree, I agree, I strongly agree


  • Scale: This is a bit like me, This is a lot like me, This is just like me

An important consideration to make when designing a set of ratings is how it may provide added incentives to learners to participate further in discussions, e.g. to elaborate on why they gave their particular rating to a forum post or glossary entry, or for the rating recipient to modify or elaborate on their post/entry, thereby encouraging deeper engagement and constructive discourse between learners. If learners find the ratings meaningful, helpful, and relevant to their learning needs, then they are more likely to use them to rate each others’ work (if you set the activity to allow peer rating).

Teachers can also use ratings for formative assessment, providing timely, easy to understand  feedback so that they can act upon it during the activities, thereby using ratings to initialise/invite instructional scaffolding. Here’s an example scenario:

  1. a learner posts a comment in a discussion,
  2. the teacher or a peer rates the comment,
  3. the learner has an opportunity to respond, i.e. make changes or ask for elaboration,
  4. the discussion might continue on its current trajectory or move in a new direction

* Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems. Gamification is applied to improve user engagement, return on investment, data quality, timeliness, and learning. Source: Wikipedia.org

Presentation on learner-centered (self-directed) learning

peopleIn the previous article, Am I a learner-centered or a teacher-led teacher?, I compared and contrasted learner-centered (self-directed) learning with teacher-led (teacher-directed) learning, outlining some of the differences between them regarding learning and teaching theory and practice. In order to further clarify what the implications of learner-centered (self-directed) learning and teaching theory and practice are, I’ve composed and uploaded a presentation (slideshow).

Click here to view the presentation (opens new tab/window)

I hope you find it interesting and useful!

Technical details about the presentation software

The presentation is hosted on my Moodle installation, using a resource module (plugin) that I’ve developed and am experimenting with. My Moodle Presentation module is an implementation of the  free and open source Javascript-based slideshow project Reveal.js by Hakim El Hattab.

Please contact me if you have any difficulties in viewing the presentation.