Authorship within EdTech Platforms

Educational Platforms and Student IP: Three Key Issues

An illustration from 1906 depicts a woman in a bonnet
              and elegant dress and a man wearing a three-piece suit and
              top-hat watching as their personal telegraphs receive
              information. The caption of the illustration states: 'The
              two figures are not communicating with one another',
              envisioning the kind of phubbing that would occur in the
              age of the smart-phone.
Figure 6. Edwards and Gelms (2018) defined platforms as "complex and evolving assemblages of people, technologies, discourses, materialities, financial decisions, community practices, and more that shape the possibilities for social, civic, and political exchanges."

Over the past two decades, scholars in computers and writing have examined how digital composing practices impact conceptions of IP. Studies of file sharing (DeVoss & Porter, 2006), remix and recomposition (Ridolfo & DeVoss, 2009), surveillance and privacy (Beck, 2015; Beck et al., 2016), net neutrality (McKee, 2011), social media terms of service agreements (Amidon & Reyman, 2015; Reyman, 2013), and memetic circulation (Gries, 2015) illuminate how evolving digitally networked writing practices have challenged scholars in computers and writing to reconsider what an act of composing entails, whether the productive fruits of composing and interacting with digital technologies can be considered texts, and, if so, who might forward a controlling interest in these textual products. As Vie (2008) put it, "the shift from print to online writing has accordingly changed the meaning of ownership and authorship" (p. 15). Further, when considering the ways that digital composing activities have shifted understandings and practices surrounding IP, we recognize that digital composing necessarily takes place within the context of technological platforms, which serve as more than intermediaries of communication (Edwards & Gelms, 2018). Platforms for digitally networked composing are rhetorical forces, complex and evolving sites for human and machine activity that shape the production and circulation of content and data.

As such, educational technology platforms carry implications for teaching and learning that occur within and beyond our writing classrooms, programs, and discipline. In considering student IP, we have identified three key issues presented by the use of educational technology platforms for teaching and learning:

  • (In)visibilty of contributions. Students' composing activities within educational technology platforms frequently generate products of intellectual property that are dynamic, fluid, and transient, and these contributions can be invisible or opaque to some users. At times, unclear sight lines are created for defining how student users have contributed and in what forms.
  • Asymmetry of access and control. Composing infrastructures within educational technology platforms create asymmetry in access to and control over student work. Students' ownership and control of their own compositions is limited within and across platforms.
  • Circulation and recomposition. Students who have contributed IP within educational technology platforms are not always able to exercise agency/control over the IP they (co)composed as it circulates within platforms and beyond.

Im/Materiality and In/Visibility

The Materiality of Composing: Composing In/Visible Contributions

It is easy to recognize essays and other text-based assignments submitted to educational technology platforms as content to which students might assert authorship and ownership. However, when using technologies for composing, there is a much wider range of contributions students make that has value.

We find particularly troubling the invisibility and mythos of non-materiality with which some forms of digital composing are treated under current usage of educational technology platforms. In composing via educational technology platforms, contributions might include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Content: essays, research papers/articles, blog posts, tweets and status updates, webpages, photos, audio files
  • Data: personal information shared, assessments and grading of submitted work, profile information
  • Metadata: information on type of hardware and browser used for access, IP address/location, other websites visited, other content viewed on third-party apps, clicks, views, duration of time logged in

A grainy, grey-scale
              image depicts the word 'data'.
Figure 7. Platform users make contributions to platforms that might seem fleeting or ephemeral; however, the content, data, and metadata users contribute to these platforms hold remarkable social, cultural, and economic value—platform curators benefit from having material access to and control of these contributions.

User contributions, as Tim Amidon and Jessica Reyman (2015) posited, include both visible contributions that occur at the surface of platforms (content and some data, as described above) as well as non-transparent or hidden contributions that are composed in, introduced to, or produced as a result of interactions within a platform (some data and metadata, as described above). These contributions include content that is copyrightable and data or metadata that can be copyrightable but is not always. Data, then, occupy a liminal space in that they can simultaneously be owned and not owned depending on how they were generated and under what terms of use agreements. For example, a proprietary database can be copyrighted and owned by its developer, but a trail of metadata that reveals the browsing habits and paths of a single user across multiple self-selected platforms cannot. Following Amidon and Reyman, we want to emphasize that not only do users regularly upload or compose forms of copyrightable content through surface level interactions within these platforms, but they also compose forms of data and metadata through the interactions they have in platforms that are non-transparent and hidden and not always copyrighted. Indeed, students compose a wide range of data and metadata through both their interactions within and the content that they introduce to educational technology platforms. Further, Reyman (2013) has argued that the development of these contributions—content, data, and metadata—are all acts of composing. As such, they challenge our currently held conceptions of intellectual property:

it is the interaction between humans and technology that results in the productive act of composing data: as users view, contribute, and share with social and participatory Web technologies, with other texts, and with each other, they become collaborative agents in generating data. (p. 526)

The invisibility of contributions users make on digital platforms leads to "the silent harvesting of [IP] rights" (Bragg qtd. in Vie, 2008). Users may not understand, see, or access the full range of content, data, and metadata they create while interacting in such platforms. Additionally, they may not realize the extent to which service and platform developers retain ownership and control over their data. In their recent study of Twitter, Casey Fiesler and Nicolas Proferes (2018) found that "few users were previously aware that their public tweets could be used by researchers, and the majority felt that researchers should not be able to use tweets without consent" (p. 1). That is, users may not even think that the public content they offer on platforms will be used without their permission, let alone the less transparent contributions that come in the form of data and metadata (Amidon & Reyman, 2015). This invisibility has implications for authorship, because when users are unclear about what they have composed or contributed, it becomes easier for others to appropriate or assert ownership or control over these contributions. Uncertainty and unawareness about how one is contributing and the value of those contributions, then, precludes granting ownership to users themselves. Within educational technology platforms, students produce in networked, collaborative spaces where composing unfolds in large and small ways. Invisible data and metadata appear smaller in scope than visible text and other content. Additionally, they are not copyrightable taken alone and are only considered valuable IP products as collections in databases or in aggregation. However, these acts of composing data, microcomposing, produce small but highly valuable contributions individual users make in these sprawling networks.

Ultimately, as Estee Beck (2015) explained, our interactions in digital spaces compose both a visible and an invisible identity—our visible identity being the one we carefully craft and curate in our online spaces, and our invisible identity being comprised of the data and metadata generated by all our online movements via third-party elements (p. 126). As she remarked, "this trend of collecting and distributing fragments of our digital identity has led me to think about the ways digital writing teachers ask students to get online, click around, and use certain websites for course projects" (p. 126). Here, Beck connects academic writing curriculum with the corporate surveillance machine and shares her concern over how teachers implicate students into a system they do not fully comprehend by requiring their participation in online engagement for class. Indeed, the invisibility and immateriality of user-authored contributions has led to limits of users' rights. Amidon and Reyman (2015) further argued that "data becomes, at its inception, free to be appropriated and controlled by those responsible for the technology and not by users. Removing a human author-agent from the productive act of generating user data obscures the presence of an unfair exchange system established between users and technology providers" (p. 120). This redistribution of power is enacted through the terms of use and end user license agreements that providers promulgate, through which technology developers and service providers appropriate ownership and control of content and data that flow through platforms. Educational technology platforms that students use within our writing classrooms and programs are no different: They facilitate the composition of a wide and varied range of content, data, and metadata, both visible and invisible, which are subject to the same agreements that can limit students' rights over their contributions.


Asymmetrical Composing Infrastructures

Educators often compel students to relinquish their rights to make decisions about their own IP, creating asymmetry in access and control. For example, when educators require students to use plagiarism detection services (PDS) such as Turnitin, they compel students to give up certain authorial rights, permitting PDS to store these IP within databases that enable the cross-comparison of student papers. Similarly, when students are compelled to participate in learning management systems such as Blackboard and Canvas in courses, they not only gain access to discussion forums, view course readings, and submit their work through the LMS, but also grant platforms access to the contributions they made to these LMS, which can include data such as how often a student has logged in, which IP addresses that student has used, and how long a student has spent viewing and interacting with various elements of a platform. While educators, administrators, and the platform itself might access these data, we suspect students are often unaware of how their contributions are being used and by whom.

We argue that students are compelled to give consent because simply by enrolling in a course the student must meet the requirements stipulated by the professor, which may include the expectation of using a particular educational technology platform. Discussing the exchange users make to freely access platforms, Heidi McKee (2011) asserted, "[users] are complicit in an arrangement in which they have been compelled to relinquish control over their own contributions, where consent carries little meaning and choice is illusory" (p. 14). This asymmetry is exacerbated within educational contexts, as students may have less agency to opt out when called to participate within specific platforms as institutional composers. Further, we note the ways in which the end user license agreements (as well as the technological design and structure) grant institutions, faculty, and even the private companies themselves rights to access and use student contributions, while at the same time limiting what students can see and do with their own content and data. Students compose profound amounts of textual content and vast streams of data and metadata by interacting within these infrastructures. However, students rarely have access to what data is generated and how content and data is used once submitted.

              image depicts a rusty, worn out, dysfunctional electrical
Figure 8. Scholars in computers and composition and digital rhetoric have long warned that uncritical participation within technological infrastructures can reproduce social, political, cultural, and economic inequity.

Within the AUTHORSHIP section, TyAnna noted that students "may not consider the potential value of the work they create and might not think about protecting it," and "it is not uncommon that student-created work is treated as if it is legally unprotected and students' rights to make choices about how to treat their work can be disregarded." An asymmetry is created when it becomes common educational practice to collect a vast amount of student IP and information, while at the same time compelling students to relinquish control over it. Levels of choice and control students can exert over their own work when participating through educational technology platforms are limited. Consequently, we find dubious those practices through which students are coerced into participating, as students regularly increase the value of these platforms significantly while gaining little access to the fruits of their productive labor.

Further, scholars in the field have cautioned that asymmetrical infrastructures undergird how ownership—or perhaps, more accurately, the parcel of managerial rights bestowed to authors who create textual products—is assigned within the practice of literate activity. Composing infrastructures shape how "cultural information is passed along in...interfaces," as Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe (1994) famously explained, "[and] can serve to reproduce, on numerous discursive levels and through a complex set of conservative forces... asymmetrical power relations...." (p. 485). Similarly, Deborah Brandt (1998) challenged writing teachers to be more cognizant of the equity issues surrounding literacy sponsorship, while referring to the nexus of organizations, individuals, and practices as "infrastructures of opportunity" (p. 178). Indeed, drawing on groundbreaking studies of IP such as Martha Woodmansee's (1984) work on authorship, Andrea A. Lunsford (1999) recounted a kairotic opportunity when it seemed possible for feminist scholars to "change...the dynamics of intellectual property, of textual ownership, of the value of structures surrounding certain kinds of cultural/textual production" (p. 530). Put differently, these scholars reminded us that all literacy activities are technologically mediated, and that our conceptions of ownership and authorship are inflected by the varying levels of access and control that individuals and groups exercise over the ways that literacy is enacted in situated contexts.

Building on this earlier work, Dànielle DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, and Jeff Grabill (2005) argued that while compositionists have substantively attended to "past and current integrations of technology and writing," including the ways, for instance, "policies, guidelines, and [IP] laws" influence literate practice (p. 19), we would stand to gain much by examining more deeply the "infrastructural dynamics that new-media composing creates as well as the ways that such composing is dependent on infrastructural dynamics that may not be configured to accommodate traditional writing activities" (p. 22). DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill observed that future scholars need to better understand how "transparent streams of bits and bytes" flow through such infrastructures, as students increasingly turn toward composing in digitally networked locations (p. 30). Similarly, Stuart Selber (2009) asserted that composing infrastructures are not only comprised of technologies "but various agents, values, practices, and forces, all of which have particular histories and tendences" that "have a direct effect on a wide range of literacy activities" (p. 12). Taken collectively, this scholarship not only reminds us that asymmetry in access, opportunity, and agency surrounds literate activity writ large, but that this asymmetry is operational within and maintained through the situated practice of literacy. We find the asymmetry in student access to and control over their own IP to be an important implication of current usage of educational technology platforms.


Contributions, Control, and Circulatory Agency

Social media platforms and educational technologies have the potential for unprecedented sharing, access, and connection, but technology service providers wield considerable control for designing and standardizing which interactions will occur within a platform, including who gets credit for (and how they get it) and profits from participating with platforms. Users provide the inputs of content, activity, and information that makes these platforms valuable, yet service providers assert a substantial degree of managerial control over those contributions. Recently, Dustin Edwards (2018) described networks of "people, institutions, technologies, discourses, and/or other infrastructures" that influence the ways "content moves in particular rhetorical ecologies," as circulation gatekeepers (p. 62). That is, Edwards follows earlier scholars in circulation studies (e.g., Gries, 2015; Gries & Brooke, 2018; Ridolfo & DeVoss, 2009; Sackey, Ridofo, & DeVoss, 2018) in arguing for a broader understanding of the ways that agency for authorship, dissemination, and attention is distributed diffusely across networked platforms and spaces. As Laurie Gries (2018) posited, "circulation studies ... addresses rhetorical concerns with bodies, access, and power; ecological concerns with affect, publics, and writing; and digital concerns with infrastructures, distribution, and global economies" (p. 7). Similarly, Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle DeVoss's work in rhetorical velocity (2009) asked members of the field to attend to the "epistemic nature of composing" that occurs not only when texts are "crafted" but also as that information is "delivered, distributed, recomposed, redelivered, and redistributed… across physical and virtual networks and spaces" (which they name amplification). As these scholars demonstrate, digital composing infrastructures carry the potential to displace and obscure authorship by disrupting and redistributing how content is affiliated with its origins as it moves across networked platforms. Gatekeepers do more than control the flow of content: They define the very terms of participation and design logics through which the recognition, value, and control that grows from user contributions will be managed and awarded.

Platforms, then, might be seen functioning as brokerage sites, separating from users the data and content they author and distributing access to these contributions to other downstream participants. In turn, downstream participants might interact with contributions in a wide array of ways, such as further dispersing these contributions into other networks and mining those contributions to construct derivative knowledge or products. That is, platforms control how datastreams flow, but they also serve as arbiters of authorial rights, determining who might claim (and how they might claim) ownership to and agency over the contributions and data streams that flow from the platforms they sponsor. While platforms work to standardize the de-identification of content and data from those who authored it within these systems, a human actor is required to generate content within, upload content to, and interact or recirculate content within these platforms. Redirecting attention to circulation, then, renders these distributed composing practices visible, a turn that is essential if we hope to assert that users who compose content, data, and metadata within these systems have some type of stake in these contributions.

An close up image
              of a hard-drive; multiple wires--red, white, silver,
              off-white, blue, and teal--flow across the circuit board.
Figure 9. Laurie Gries (2018) argued, "our students need to understand how circulation comes into play throughout their entire writing process—from invention to revision to distribution" (p. 7). Following Gries, we would suggest that administrators, educators, platform designers, and students might gain much from attending to the dynamics and economies which influence how IP circulates across and beyond platforms utilized in educational contexts, including giving critical scrutiny to who profits from the ability to access, manage, and build on students' IP.

In the case of student authorship, it appears that users who contribute what is arguably the most productive activity within these platforms have the least access to the contributions and value produced by participating. Circulatory control is built into educational technology platforms in ways that include

  • Interface and algorithms that make it possible and encourage certain forms of sharing, (re)distribution, and circulation;
  • End-user license agreements that allow platform developers and service providers to share, distribute, circulate, and use user contributions; and
  • Third-party partnerships that grant rights to user contributions.

While studies of digitally networked, posthuman, and distributed writing (e.g., Boyle, 2016a, 2016b; Gries, 2015; Pigg, 2014; Potts, 2014; Spinuzzi, 2008, 2012) blur the meaning of text, author, and writing, as TyAnna noted in AUTHORSHIP, U.S. copyright law continues to assign authors' rights to texts using a framework that was informed by an analogic world. We are concerned, then, that a widening fissure is emerging between how members of our field theorize writing within contemporary digital ecologies and the ways these concepts are defined and treated within law. Composers of content aren't always awarded the parcel of author's rights under U.S. copyright law that enables them to manage control over the contributions they made within platforms.

Indeed, McKee warned that "what matters even more [than access and connectivity] is who controls those networks and thus the delivery of information on those networks" (Beck et al., 2016, n.p.). Educational platforms circulate student-generated compositions, both large and small, well beyond their intended reach. Problematically, the value extracted from student contributions is being used for privatization and profit. In sum, students who have contributed IP within educational technology platforms are not always able to exercise agency/control over their IP as it circulates within platforms and beyond.



The information and ideas contained in this webtext are not intended to be understood as legal advice, but rather as an exploration of the potential tensions that may exist between how authorship functions as a legal concept and how authorship is practiced and theorized in educational contexts.

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