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Towards a fair digital transformation


I face the same view every day. The tall grass behind my house, the ragged teddy bear sitting in a window frame across the street, the neglected flowers in my front yard; it seems that the world has come to a halt and that millions of work-from-home employees are stuck in the eye of the corona storm.

Beyond the slice of life painting formerly known as my living room window, lies a world that is changing - fast. Extreme times call for extreme measures, which is exactly what has happened. This week saw the first digital examinations, a drone flying over Dutch beaches to enforce social distance, and an emergency increase of the healthcare budget. A lot of measures that would have been unthinkable three weeks ago.

How is this possible? Naomi Klein explained the phenomenon in her book ‘The Shock Doctrine’. People are willing to hand over a lot of power in times of crisis, particularly to “anyone who claims to have a magic cure.” Her book mentions that financial turmoil and coups are catalysts for transformations, but I believe that the current corona crisis has a similar effect. Once our habits are broken and ‘what is important’ is redefined, it seems that all bureaucracy is replaced by a peloton of technological innovations with a surprisingly strong tailwind.

The developments at TU/e are quite remarkable. A digital transformation is normally led by a CEO, but this time corona acts as a change manager. Our blackboards have been swapped for Canvas plugins for remote teaching, and the TU/e keeps sending us new software to try - which I’m grateful for.

Although I’m quite optimistic about how TU/e deals with this crisis, I think we should become more critical towards all of these fast and frugal developments. Most of them are not set in stone, but tied together with a few pieces of duct tape. For instance, a student noticed this week that he could participate in a remote exam if his video recording would be stored on a US-based server. Although TU/e is now drafting rules for this, it seems that sharing course data and video recordings has been normalized. This might be feasible for some people, but others might have more privacy concerns. We should not forget that we fought for decades to maintain our privacy, and we should not flush it down De Dommel so quickly.

In their communication, TU/e emphasizes we should act as a collective. I feel that we should move beyond today’s workaround solutions and aim for sustainable changes in our (digital) teaching portfolio. However, this cannot be achieved with a technology-push approach - just ask anyone at the School of Innovation Sciences in Atlas (preferably use Skype for Business).

We should be cautious to give up on parts of our privacy today, for we might lose other parts of it tomorrow. For instance, it could be tempting to abandon bigger chunks of our traditional, face to face education, but this might have repercussions on our scientific staff. We should not settle for easy fixes: either we all agree all of this is temporary, or we have to create sustainable, digital solution that work for everyone at TU/e. Solutions that are fair and do not infringe on our values. Because there is ‘team’ in ‘Microsoft Teams’.

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