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Shining a light behind the GUI of digital services used in schools

If we want to understand how the infrastructure of schooling works in the physical world, we will more than likely need to visit a school to look at what people are using and what they are doing with those things. If we want to go further and understand what makes the things people do with an infrastructure possible, we will need to talk to the people involved in providing it, but also look in contracts and manuals, open cupboards, and turn on the lights in storage rooms to reveal what is happening.

In many ways the digital infrastructure of schooling is no different. If we want to understand how it works, we need to shine a light on what is going on under the surface. This might start with getting the keys to locked rooms to look at the physical networking equipment in a school, but the globally distributed nature of many digital services means that such local investigations may fall short. Luckily, the verbose record keeping nature of the digital world means that we can go a long way to revealing the digital infrastructure of schooling from the nearest computer.

The world of digital networks is largely governed by the Internet Protocol (IP). This is a set of rules that defines how files can be broken up into thousands of tiny data packets and exchanged between machines anywhere in the world. Complex systems of switches and routers send each packet to its destination where it is joined with others to reconstitute the original file. For this to work, each packet must be clearly labeled with its source and destination addresses along with a description of what kind of data it is and how it should be interpreted by the receiving machine. Along the way, each piece of networking equipment that a packet meets can be identified and its physical location along with who owns it can be uncovered. It is this kind of verbose record keeping that means that the layers under the surface of the digital infrastructure immediately visible in schools can be revealed.

To reveal the characteristics of the infrastructure that supports digital technologies in schools, researchers can make use of the concepts and tools of fields like network architecture, management, and security. These fields have well established ways of revealing and understanding the innerworkings of digital infrastructure that can be repurposed. In our work to understand the different actors and technologies underlying popular cloud-based services used in schools, we have been using a tool called packet analysis to reveal the records or meta-data attached to data packets when school services are used.

Making use of packet analysis techniques, we have been able to gain insights into the large number of companies providing solutions such as data storage, computation, identification control, and security while remaining largely unknown to the users of a digital service. To reveal these infrastructures in an understandable way, we have been using a range of visualization techniques such as frequency charts and alluvial diagrams but have found heat maps to be particularly useful. Using a world map, we can plot the location with which data is exchanged, visualize the amount, and identify the company and type of solution provided. This makes it relatively easy to see the number of companies and solutions involved in providing a seemingly cohesive digital service for schools such as Canvas or ClassDojo. In this way, we can shine a light behind the Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) that teachers and students use and reveal the digital infrastructures at work.

Photo by Clint Adair on Unsplash