Teaching: Navigating Surveillance and Visibility in the Online Classroom

Dig, if you will, the picture of an online public health professor checking out Zaption analytics. Or, let’s consider a distance learning accounting student who leaves a fantastic instructor review on one of the many online professor rating services. What do these very disparate scenarios have in common? Well, they both involve watching, tracking, and reporting behaviors related to the online classroom environment. From analytics to privacy to bullying and beyond, surveillance is a hot topic in higher education contexts. In this post I’d like to briefly tease the complicated realities of surveillance and visibility in online teaching rather than presenting a “Yay, privacy!” or “Boo, surveillance!” pose. 

Heart on Monitor

I first became interested in this topic several years ago when I was concurrently teaching my first online class and taking a qualitative research methods class. One day in my qualitative class my professor joked(?), “If you don’t do your readings I’ll know because Brightspace lets me see if you’ve clicked on a file”. From that day forward I was fascinated with the way that we as educators can watch and track what our students do in online environments as well as the ethical implications that go along with this ability. However, the story is much, much more complicated than a simple question of privacy concerns versus course improvement via analytics. Consider the following two questions for yourself:

  • How do students and professors both simultaneously engage in and resist the culture of watching and being watched? I think that we live in an equally scopophilic/scopophobic culture. In other words we are both drawn to and repelled by being watched and watching others (and ourselves). Is this not the case in your online classes as well? If so, what types of watching are you engaging in? Alternately, how are you also avoiding tracking your students? How are your students engaged in this same complex negotiation?  Moreover, is surveillance always disenfranchising or can it also be empowering? And, ultimately, why does any of this matter?
  • How can questions about surveillance inform your course design and delivery? Ok, so let’s say that you accept my premise that students and professors are enmeshed in a complex surveillant web. Additionally, you’ve also decided that this matters to your teaching philosophy or practice. Where do you go from here? I think that your next move is to consider the practical implications of your musings and integrate these into your teaching. For instance, when I was faced with these types of considerations as an instructor I made several changes to my course. First, I wanted to make the professor-to student-data gathering piece of the course more transparent. I achieved this by including a statement in my syllabus informing my students about what types of data I had available on them as well as how I was using it to improve the course experience. Second, I stopped giving out my cell phone number. Although many of my interactions with students via text were enriching I found it exhausting to be always on, always visible, always available. Thus, I cut off this form of self-surveillance related to my teaching. Third, I placed my students into semester-long support groups. These groups offered students several types of supportive surveillance that I would normally provide. In these small ways I achieved a certain democratization of watching and tracking while recognizing the impossibility/undesirability of slipping away from surveillance altogether.

If you’d like to learn more about the complexities of surveillance in higher education and in the wider culture check out the open source journal Surveillance and Society. This publication presents theoretical and empirical research from critical and postmodern perspectives. In addition, your friendly neighborhood CETL instructional designers can also help you think about these more philosophical parts of your design and teaching. I believe that you’ll find a lot of value in considering your stance on this hot topic and how it can effect your own experience in higher ed.

Image Attributions:

monitor heart by Vectors Market from the Noun Project

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