Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Oh MyEdu!

Oh MyEdu!

My name is Sue Mach.  I have been an English instructor at Clackamas Community College in Oregon for over fifteen years.  In early June, as faculty were madly preparing final exams and grading end-of-year papers and projects, we received an e-mail from the registrar’s office informing us that our grade distributions would be made publicly available to an online company called MyEdu, that claims to provide data to students to help them “manage” their college careers.  This information includes degree planning, scheduling, credit assessment, and of course faculty ratings and grade histories.  All of the data requested by MyEdu is public information, so according to our school lawyers, there was nothing we could do but fork it over.  We were moreover informed that MyEdu was not in violation the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act  (FERPA) because it was not requesting information about individual students. 

Because of my association with Oregon Save our Schools, and the research I’ve done for my play A Noble Failure, I became immediately concerned.  A visit to the MyEdu website begins with a bombastic video scare tactic informing students and parents that although 93% of college freshmen believe they will complete their degree in four years, only 36% of them actually do.  Sometimes it takes longer and I guess that’s more expensive.  The video went on to show how MyEdu can save students and parents thousands of dollars by performing the services I mentioned.  They boast that they’ve helped over 2 million students “graduate faster.”

Mind you, there’s absolutely no documentation to support these claims, and graduating faster doesn’t necessarily mean becoming an employed and informed citizen faster.

When I clicked on Clackamas Community College on the MyEdu site, the faces of five smiling students appeared —Michael, Maya, Stephan, Ava and Aubrey— with messages inviting students to create profiles to link their “projects and presentations” to the general public, provide course feedback, or recommend a good chemistry instructor.  Funnily enough, when I clicked on Mount Hood, Chemeketa, and PCC, and pretty much every other college in the state, Michael, Maya, Stephan, Ava and Aubrey were students there too!  And they really wanted some more students to create profiles to, well, provide the site with their personal information. 

On the surface it’s easy to dismiss MyEdu as a lame website that few students will access because it’s poorly designed and offers nothing to them that isn’t available in their advisor’s office.   A further inquiry into the history of the company is far more distressing, however, revealing a partisan agenda that’s closely tied to efforts to diminish college professors, reduce college to a “stop and shop” experience, and privatize post-secondary education. 

In 2008, Michael Crosno, investor, former business instructor, and member of Rick Perry’s re-election committee, purchased and rebranded a “rate-my-professor” knockoff called Pick a Prof.   MyEdu got a further boost in 2010 when Mitt Romney’s pals at BainCapital invested 5.5 million dollars in the company.  In August 2011, in a move that reads like a blueprint for the current UVA scandal, the Perry-appointed Board of Regents at the University of Texas—despite the reservations of university president, and with no input from either the public or their investment advisors—voted unanimously to invest $10 million in MyEdu.  In exchange, the U of T would receive customized websites for each of its academic and health campuses, as well as a 22.5 percent stake in the company.  Oh, and it just so happens that a former Chancellor, William Cunningham, is an investor and his son John is Senior Vice President of Information Architecture, and a founding MyEdu member.

One of the key players in the U of T/MyEdu deal was AlexCranberg.   Cranberg,  CEO of the recentlyindicted Aspect Energy corporation, is a school voucher advocate who created the Alliance for Choice in Education, a nonprofit group in Denver, CO that pushes for ALEC-scripted legislation and backs legislators who pursue a privatization agenda.  Even more disturbing is Cranberg’s connection to ALEC-backed Jeff Sandefer, architect of the controversial Texas Seven Solutions for Higher Education, which pretty much calls for a reduction in research funding, merit pay based on student evaluations, and a gutting of all things humanities related. 

So my questions are as follows.  How can MyEdu claim to be in compliance with FERPA when simply registering with the website means a student is offering up his/her academic information to be data mined?  How can academic institutions let themselves be bullied by an organization that clearly has ideological partisan connections to groups and individuals who can manipulate instructor data to serve their political and financial concerns?

Though the information schools provide is public, they shouldn’t give it up without a fight.  It’s like handing your keys to the robbers who want to raid and pillage your house.