Thursday, June 13, 2013

Teaching and Learning in the Corporate Surveillance State

As we learn more about how the United States’ government has been monitoring the phone calls and emails of its own citizens, we should ask what will happen when many of our classes are taught online.  We already know that Coursera tries to prevent student cheating by identifying each student’s keystroke pattern, but what should really concern us is the ability of administrators and outside agencies to simply drop in and record faculty and students’ exchanges.  In other words, once we place our classes online, we turn an essentially private situation into a public forum, and we simply do not know who can monitor our courses and our students.

This move from private conversation to public access has already occurred on a massive scale since Google, Facebook, and other web-based corporations are selling the personal data that we freely place online.  Following the logic of Michel Foucault, we can see how social control has been historically tied to confession.  First the Church controlled people through confession, then the police and the state, and now people freely choose to put their personal data online. This corporate effort to monetize personal information must be placed within the context of the post-9/11 war on terror where the government uses fear tactics to force high-tech companies to hand over their massive archives of data.

In terms of higher education, I recently asked a university official how faculty would be evaluated if they taught their courses online, and I was told that instead of using the usual in-class peer visit, a faculty member or administrator would be given access to watch the teacher online.  I then asked what would happen if most of the teaching happened through email or Skype, and I was informed that the evaluator would be able to access these interactions. 

One reason why most professors have not thought about how the use of online courses could  affect academic freedom is that so far, most of the faculty teaching online have been non-tenure-track faculty with little if any academic freedom.  However, with the great push to move more classes online, the risk of losing academic freedom will affect everyone. 

In terms of students, these same risks apply.  Many of the online providers argue that the strength of their new teaching technologies are derived from the ability of the teacher and/or provider to monitor the students’ progress.  For example, one technique that is used is to time how long a student looks at a particular page or document.  This information is then fed into an algorithm that examines how well the student performs on a particular set of tasks.  This tracking and monitoring of students is often called an experiment, yet I know of no company that has been required to have students sign off on being human subjects of a scientific experiment.  Moreover, many of these companies are already working with online ad companies and vendors to sell student data and information collected by algorithmic search engines.

While high-tech education providers often state that their ultimate goal is to provide better access to high-quality instruction, this admirable rhetoric often shields us from seeing a whole set of dangerous unintended consequences.  As companies feed on our personal information and the government spies on our personal communications, we must question the future of total information awareness.           


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  2. It seems to me that technology has evolved into a great supporter of education, simple students gadgets play today vital role!

  3. Another informative article. thanks for great educational news with us.

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  5. I am an advocate for online education, having both taken and taught several online high school courses. I believe this obsession with preventing student monitoring does not override the value and convenience of studying a subject through an online course.

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