Introducing DD: a tool for the Democratic Digitalisation of Education

Introducing DD: an agile, auditable and interoperable public-code tool for the Democratic Digitalisation of Education.
 

Digitalización Democrática

As part of the Plan for the Democratic Digitalisation of Education, Xnet and a group of families offered a press conference at Barcelona City Council presenting the first version of the DD digital educational infrastructure, a pioneering comprehensive workspace that aggregates free and auditable software tools in a single suite offering data sovereignty and protecting the digital rights of the educational community.

Based on the Plan for the Democratic Digitalisation of Education drawn up by Xnet and the participating families, it has received support from the Directorate for Democratic Innovation and the Commission for Digital Innovation of Barcelona City Council and the Barcelona Education Consortium. This has enabled a pilot project carried out by Xnet, three schools and the development companies IsardVDI and 3iPunt, with the collaboration of aFFac and AirVPN.

    · DD offers an agile, auditable and interoperable public-code alternative to proprietary products from large tech corporations such as Google and Microsoft

    · Barcelona City Council is now extending its backing so that the pilot, which includes training, support and 24/7 personalised technical help, can be extended to more educational centres in the city

Since 2010, a certain multinational tech company has positioned itself as the main provider of digital infrastructure for state education. Its foray into education began first with email technology, and then gradually spread to the use of servers and cloud archiving, office tools, virtual learning environments, calendars, contacts, forms, video-conferencing and, finally, hardware.

In March 2019, a group of families raised the alarm and approached Xnet to find a solution to this situation as it understood that this deployment entailed, firstly, the unprecedented and accelerated datafication of a major part of the educational lives of students, teachers and families, and the subsequent loss of data sovereignty in favour of a large technology corporation. Secondly, we opposed this because it results in a technological monoculture that creates captive clients right from childhood, something in direct contradiction with the goal of offering a critical digital education. It omits plurality and the inclusion of diverse perspectives, metacognition as to the range of tools and technological corporations used and, in short, went against freedom of choice and thought.

 

The crucial importance of digital infrastructure

While schools did not seem to have alternatives available that met their needs, we realised that the digital infrastructure of schools were not just an important issue, but key to the current phase of our digital reality. Then the pandemic came along and proved us right: digital infrastructure was fast becoming a basic service for the functioning of everyday school life and, at the same time, the battleground for data sovereignty and the digital rights of minors. A pen and paper does not record, code or store data in large company archives. Email, video conferencing, online forms and office docs, do. A pen and paper do not monopolise access to culture.

In light of this situation, many actors in the educational community felt a sense of inevitability and defeat in the face of the dominance of large tech corporations, believing them to be practically unbeatable and omnipotent. It was clear to us, however, that we had to defend the sovereignty of our children’s, teachers’ and families’ data, and that they should be held on servers controlled by us and managed with auditable, open tools. At the same time, we wanted to show that we prefer a free and democratic Internet to the version of the Internet offered by the big tech corporations. It is the duty of schools (and public administrations) to lead by example in its implementation while avoiding increasing the already heavy workload, but rather, lightening it as far as possible.
 

DD, a sovereign, democratic alternative for digital education infrastructure

Now, after three years of work and one year of intense development, we can now present DD, the comprehensive digital infrastructure prototype based on Xnet’s Plan for Democratic Digitalisation.

It has been made possible thanks to the companies that won the tender (IsardVDI and 3iPunt), the support and funding of the Directorate of Democratic Innovation, the Digital Innovation Commission, the Social Economy Commission of Barcelona City Council and the Barcelona Education Consortium, as well as the collaboration of aFFaC (the Associated Pupils’ Families Federations of Catalonia) and AirVPN. Thanks to their support, Xnet, the families and the schools have been able to produce this prototype infrastructure.

The DD is a tool that can guarantee technological autonomy, and sovereign, democratic technological plurality with the following features:

    • • This is a comprehensive, unified digital infrastructure, meaning it provides a workspace that brings together a range of functionalities and services such as office tools, cloud space, email, video conferencing, virtual learning environment, etc., all the most common tools required by a school in the digital era to meet the needs of all users (primary and secondary school pupils, teachers, families, and administration and services staff). Moreover, because it is unified, you only need to register once when you first enter [Single Sign-on]. It adds unified management of users and user groups to the features of the suites now most commonly used in education, such as those of Google.

    • • It is developed on the basis of free, auditable and open software tools, such as Moodle, Nextcloud, WordPress, Big Blue Button, Etherpad, Onlyoffice and Keycloak, widely consolidated technologies that are the international benchmarks in their fields. The container-based structure allows them to be conveniently swapped out for other containers if required.

    • • It can be installed both on a school’s own private servers as well as commercial servers while still ensuring direct control of data and content. In other words, it offers server security while also ensuring people’s rights, such as the presumption of innocence and the inviolability of communications, which are not normally contractual requirements for servers, with all the risks that can bring with it for users’ rights.

    • • It includes email and other communication tools, such as chat while ensuring the inviolability of communications.

    • • It is interoperable for easy migration and integration from other platforms, such as migration from Classroom to Moodle, from Sites to WordPress (currently in beta) or migrating Google Workspace users to DD Administrator, thereby avoiding creating captive clients.

    • • It is deposited in a public repository (still in the compilation phase), GitLab, to give back to the public in an open and transparent way that which has been developed with their money and allowing for the code to be further improved and enriched by the community. It is therefore a package that follows the principle of public money, public code, according to which software developed for the public domain and publicly funded must be made available to everybody. This package also follows the freedoms that define free software: the freedom to use the program for any purpose; the freedom to study how the program works and to modify it, adapting it to your own needs; the freedom to distribute copies of the program; the freedom to improve the program and to make these improvements public for all, so that the whole community benefits.

    • • It is scalable and customisable as it can add new applications and adaptations to suit the needs of each sector and the contexts of each area or school. The people behind the package are fully aware of both the potential of free/libre software and the needs of schools. The package therefore puts people and their realities ahead of technology and follows a more humane, sensitive, and contextualised approach to the digital world.

    • • Last but not least, we have produced several user manuals, the most important of which is the one that allows us to define the protocols so that the educational community understands and is able to respect data protection as this is beneficial to them. We provide templates that can be used for legal notices, activity authorisations and contracts with external suppliers.

The ongoing prototype still faces challenges, such as the automation of certain components and overcoming the beta phase of some of the functionalities offering interoperability between tools. However, the DD digital infrastructure meets the basic objectives of democratic digitalisation.
 

Let’s start replicating

Since Xnet first started this work in 2019, hundreds of schools, parent-teacher associations, teachers and families have contacted Xnet, alarmed and concerned about the digital rights of the educational community. The number of those interested in an alternative is growing exponentially every day. This week, at the Canòdrom, the Digital and Democratic Innovation Workshop of Barcelona, we are holding training sessions for DD in which more than 300 people and organisations from Barcelona, Catalonia and the rest of Spain have already signed up.
[Schedules: https://xnet-x.net/es/demostracion-herramienta-digitalizacion-democratica-educacion/]

For the presentation sessions we have scheduled this week alone, we have been contacted by 35 secondary schools from all over Catalonia (14 from Barcelona), 25 primary schools (9 from Barcelona), as well as more than 30 organisations linked to education (aFFaC, obviously, which has supported us from the beginning, music schools, language schools and other specialised schools, foundations, pedagogical renovation movements, and educational technical services), a dozen organisations from fields outside education (such as ecology and culture), a dozen researchers, and many other profiles. From outside Catalonia, we have received requests for information from the Basque Country, with whom we will start working soon, Mallorca and Andalusia.
Barcelona City Council has pledged to support the development still required by the programme, to consolidate the prototype and expand it to other educational and training centres in the city of Barcelona.
 

From the technological determinism of large corporations to the cutting edge of digital democracy

The creation and momentum of DD and the interest it has generated is real proof that organised civil society can lead the fight against technological determinism and the sense of inevitability with concrete action. And this must take place in partnership with the institutions that have the means and the responsibility to do so. The use and direction to be taken by digital technology are defined by societies and individuals, and we cannot and do not want the design of our digital future to be forced upon us by large corporations with a single way of looking at the Internet and the digital world.

Large tech corporations are businesses and they direct technologies only towards their commercial interests. That is, of course, legitimate. But it must be in our hands to steer technologies to benefit our interests. People’s rights should be at the heart of digital policy design and not merely an afterthought of some product that can be turned ON or OFF.
Through our work we have shown that civil society has the locally-based talent and technological know-how needed to develop and implement technologies that lead the way in terms of functionality and, more importantly, democracy.

Xnet has defined a Plan for the Democratic Digitalisation of Education that is an international benchmark and today it takes its first step.

The digital take-back of Europe begins here :).

 

Brief technical description

DD integrates several well-established free software projects. The innovation in this solution is that all applications work together in unison.

The range of software we have integrated is as follows:

Moodle is the learning management tool used worldwide by universities and many educational institutions with more than 160 million registered users and translated into 120 languages.

Nextcloud is a file manager for documents, spreadsheets, surveys and cloud applications, which is integrated with an online and collaborative editor, OnlyOffice; it also offers a calendar and email system. This manager tool is used by various institutions, such as the French Ministry of the Interior.

BigBlueButton is a videoconferencing tool specifically designed for the educational community. For example, the teacher has control of a virtual whiteboard and can set up separate break-out work rooms. It is used in many schools in Germany.

WordPress is the tool used to design websites and is behind many of the popular websites we browse on a regular basis.

DD offers some characteristics that set it apart from the most widely used commercial tools, making it a comprehensive tool for education, including:

– Tailor-made developments focused on optimal usability of the suite (workspace)

– Simplification of tool behaviour. This means the learning curve is very small compared to the most widely used commercial suites. It also allows you to customise menu items, colours and images.

– Identity manager and centralised user management that allows you to replicate student, teacher and group structures in other environments.

– All systems are deployed using containers. This technology has enabled us to offer all services conveniently in a way that is easily reproduced. This also allows programs to be easily interchanged with other programs.

– The suite incorporates a perimeter proxy and monitoring to provide security and support for installations.
 

DD Works with any browser. Just write the URL with the name of the centre and the login page appears.

It has a drop-down menu where, in the upper part, you can see the applications that come by default and, in the lower part, it can be adapted to show those apps chosen by each individual school.

With the first button you can access the list of classrooms.

This page shows you a list of courses with information such as the teachers or your role in the group.

At the request of the educational community, we have added various functionalities such as buttons to access assessment of pending tasks or pending tasks still to be handed in as a student.

There is a quick access button to quickly create a course, just by entering the name and category.

To ensure interoperability we have added a wizard to import from Google Classroom to DD.

The classroom is a modified version of Moodle with improved usability and user experience.
In the left-hand column you can see a list of the course subjects as well as useful shortcuts, with access to any videoconferences that are automatically created for each classroom.

In the central part of the board, the teacher can send direct messages to one student or to the whole group.

Using the tabs at the top, you can easily navigate to content sorted by topic, uncompleted tasks sorted in chronological order as well as a general space where you can find transversal activities relevant to the whole of the course.

Returning to the menu, the second link available is to the cloud, where you will find online files, such as text documents, spreadsheets, surveys, forms, and even PADs.

Of course, this space can also be accessed directly from classrooms. Naturally, all tools allow for collaborative online editing.

On the right, you can see other users and, thanks to the centralised group management we have added to this suite, you can see your classmates and group mates.

Another useful feature in the menu is the link to web spaces that can be created using templates thanks to WordPress. These websites can be used both as spaces to create courses and to publish the results of projects directly online.

There are other tools in the menu such as the calendar, email, video conferencing, etc.

The centralised administration of users and groups is accessed with manager permissions and allows users to be imported from other platforms and databases. As well as managing groups across all applications, you can customise any app and modify its colour scheme and background images and logos, and add access to other apps.
 

 

Articles from the press:

Pueyo Busquets, Jordi (9/02/2022). Barcelona crea un ‘software’ para las escuelas alternativo a Google y a Microsoft. El País. Disponible en:
https://elpais.com/espana/catalunya/2022-02-09/barcelona-crea-un-software-para-las-escuelas-alternativo-a-google-y-a-microsoft.html

Vicente, Sandra (9/02/ 20222). Barcelona sienta las bases para acabar con el monopolio de Google en las aulas. Público. Disponible en:
https://www.publico.es/economia/soberania-tecnologica-barcelona-sienta-bases-acabar-monopolio-google-aulas.html

Ferrer, Tomeu (9/02/2022). Tres escoles de Barcelona demostren que es pot viure sense Google. Ara. Disponible en:
https://www.ara.cat/societat/educacio/tres-escoles-barcelona-demostren-pot-viure-google_1_4265893.html

Romero, Pablo (22/05/ 2022). Barcelona busca la independencia de los gigantes digitales. Disponible en:
https://www.publico.es/ciencias/barcelona-busca-independencia-gigantes-digitales.html
 

More information:

El encuadernador y el exorcista, por Simona Levi
Plan para la Privacidad de Datos y la Digitalización Democrática de la Educación
No firméis la autorización para utilizar Google Suite en las escuelas
Listo en abril el prototipo para digitalizar los centros educativos sin usar Google o similares
El Plan de Digitalización Democrática de la Educación de Xnet tendrá su primer piloto en Barcelona
Aprobada una prueba piloto inspirada en nuestro DD en el País Vasco
1st International Congress on Democratic Digital Education and Open Edtech