Did you read the ToS?

An activity to develop critical data literacies in Higher Education

Juliana E. Raffaghelli, Marc Romero, Teresa Romeu

Edul@b Research Group


Last year, Edul@b implemented a learning activity to raise awareness on data tracking, privacy and ethics in Digital Competence.

Our team had been reflecting on the relevance of cultivating critical digital literacies through our participation in the EU project DETECT (Developing a Digital Critical Literacy in Teachers). We had also been studying data literacy in higher education through the research and dissemination activities here, the Fair Data Cultures in Higher Education.

Therefore, we considered the opportunity and need to implement a “hands-on” activity to promote awareness-raising on the criticalities of digital tools and platforms’ exposure in the current technological landscape.

The activity: Did you read the ToS?


Our learning activity was quite simple: revising the Terms of Service of one digital tool of the students’ choice.

Our activity was just an initial step in preparing people to deal with the less cared side of most digital tools frequently adopted. Figure 1 shows the workflow we proposed to the students.

The workflow starts with the student’s selection of a digital tool frequently used. This choice has to be made upon some criteria to ensure that we will have the basic information at hand to explore some specific dimensions proposed: information about the tracked data, the temporality of the conditions requested to the users to adopt the digital tool, copyright and user rights on the contents generated, updated reference to national or international regulations, the existence of critical cases of usage. We hence offer an online survey to the students to perform their analysis. This approach is aimed at focusing on areas of evaluation of the digital tool selected. The tool also supports the final judgement assigning an automatic score, which values might vary from 0 to 85. This is the sum of scores from 1 (unclear or abusive ToS) to 5 (very clear and respectful ToS) for each question on the digital tool. Hence, this scale is converted into “badges”, assigned as the final representation of the overall quality of the Terms of Service regarding the digital tool analysed. The scores and badges were characterised as follows:

  • + Gold ToS. The digital tools under this badge offer the best terms of service: they treat the user fairly, respecting their rights and not abusing of the users’ data. Technically, the evaluations in any dimension arrive at 5 in all the questions that the students will have answered, with a score that is placed between 72 and 85 total points or 90 to 100% of the questions answered (partial gold).
  • +/- Silver ToS. The terms of service are fair to the user but could be improved. The specific evaluation per dimension is placed between 4 and 5 with some case of 3, obtaining a total score of between 64 and 71 total points or between 80 and 89% of the questions answered (partial silver).
  • × Bronze. The terms of service are fine, but some issues need the user critical consideration. The evaluations are placed between 3 and 4, obtaining a total score of between 56 and 63 total points or between 70 and 79% of the questions answered (partial bronze).
  • O Tin. The terms of service are very uneven or there are some major issues that require your attention. The evaluations are generally placed between 3 and 2, obtaining a total score of between 36 and 55 total pts or between 45 and 69% of the questions answered (partial can).
  • ! Scrap. The terms of service raise very serious concerns. The evaluations are placed between 2 and 1, obtaining a total score of between 14 and 35 total points or between 17 and 44% of the questions answered (partial scrap).

We hence asked the teachers’ opinion on the activity and the students’ participation in it. Also, we discussed the students’ position regarding the ToS of the educational tools adopted within the UOC classroom.

We invited all the students to the UOC ICT Competence course. This is a general, initial course that all the UOC students have to take, and it is preparatory for the further fully online study activity. The course has a story long 25 years, and data literacy has been a relevant part of the recent developments in-class activities. This activity was offered voluntarily since it was a pilot which, according to the results, could end up in a stable element within the learning plan. One of the fascinating aspects of this course is its interdisciplinary nature since the students from several courses get together to develop a technical, creative, collaborative, inclusive and last but not least, critical approach to the use of ICTs.

Overall, 27 Course Instructors offered the activity. We collected 823 student’s responses (and we are grateful for the outstanding contribution of both the course instructors and the participants.

Preliminary Results

We prepared an interactive Tableau Workbook for the curious people willing to interact with the rich information we collected.

Conclusions on an ongoing work

Our students are aware of the problems relating to the relatively obscure terms of service that we accept every day when using digital tools of relevance for our personal or professional life. They demonstrated a cautious approach which could be based on their understanding, after this exercise, of the several quality checks that a digital tool should undergo to be considered safe, fair, ethical when coming to the way it enters into our private worlds, and the way it makes a business from it or not. The students considered that the information provided was not excellent overall. Needless to say, it was difficult to read, once found.

Want to know more? We invite you to read the full report  Did_you_read_the_ToS_UOC2021

Published by jraffaghelli

Research professor at University of Padua, Department of Philosophy, Sociology, Pedagogy and Applied Psychology. Former Ramon y Cajal researcher at the Faculty of Education and Psychology (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). PhD in Education and Cognitive Science and Master in Adult Education (Ca' Foscari University of Venice) Degree in Psychology (University of Buenos Aires).

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