We need to talk about surveillance & data management in Higher Education

Covid-19 and the push for online learning makes critical perspectives on mass monitoring and data collection in universities more necessary than ever

In the span of a few days, universities across the globe shifted to delivering their courses entirely online. Whether it’d be in the form of a Teams seminar, or watching your professor give a lecture through Zoom, the adaptability of both staff members and students to learning through digital channels in the light of the pandemic was impressive, and is generating debates about the future of higher education (HE) and remote learning.

Predicting the direction in which HE will change is difficult. The pandemic brought to light the extent to which education has been commodified and, in the case of public universities, exposed the cracks in the sector’s finances (dependency on international students’ fees, rising costs in maintenance and residential experience…). Beyond finances, traditional education models were already being transformed, and some argue that Covid-19 merely sped up the process of digitalisation. Overall, the pandemic has forced the sector to reconsider every aspect of the experience they offer.

At some point, institutions, and the people that depend on them, are going to have to think about the implications that online learning has for matters of data privacy and mass monitoring. These take varying forms in different countries, depending on a number of factors: data protection legislature, whether it is a private or public institution, international student intake, or even the methods used to assess students depending on their degree/major.

Senior Editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Alexander Kafka, pinpoints what’s been bugging me for a while now:

When faculty jobs are online, not just every lecture and assignment, but every interaction with students, will be traceable, searchable — potentially exploitable.

What does online teaching and learning mean for institutions that are meant to be bastions of freedom of thought and speech? And how does being acutely aware that we’re being watched affect our well-being, privacy and overall educational experience?

Now, sit tight, because there’s a lot to unpack here, starting with how universities were already monitoring their staff and student body, and what they were doing with that data.

University surveillance: more than just CCTV on campus

Having to swipe your card to get into your department building or student accommodation, downloading specific articles from your university’s library online catalogue, keeping track of specific students’ attendance… the list of surveillance practices on campus are numerous, and certainly not new. As a student in the UK, I want to give a non-exhaustive account of some instances where surveillance and data collection practices are questionable, particularly in Anglo-American HE.

In the UK, for example, academic staff and students on certain visas (such as the Student Tier 4 visa) are subjected to monitoring of attendance even in lectures (which are non-compulsory in the UK) to make sure they comply with their “Tier 4 duties” as laid out by the Home Office. In fact, an email leaked at UCL shows just how severe these measures can be: from checking seminar registers for false signatures, spot checks, and for postgraduate students, meeting with academic supervisors once a month even outside of term-time. Failure to report immigration breaches would result in a £20,000 fine for the member of staff. This type of crackdown on international students, called a “hostile environment policy”, is part of a series of actions by the Home Office in more recent years aimed at restricting migrants. For a more detailed discussion on how the hostile environment “shapes university policies that value and devalue students and workers according to racial, class, and national distinctions”, check out USSbriefs article.

Additionally, in both the UK and the US, monitoring of social media platforms such as Twitter, and the flagging of specific phrases and words has created a culture of intimidation amongst academics and students. In the UK this became particularly evident during this academic year’s round of strikes, where even personal accounts unrelated to work are monitored. Although other industries already check their employees’ social media accounts, universities are meant to provide a space for academic freedom and free speech, contradicting a lot of social media policies outlined by different HE institutions. Academics in recent years are encouraged to have a social media presence and promoting their institution’s brand, yet feel that they cannot express themselves freely, even on their personal accounts. In their American counterparts, student newspapers are monitored, and there has been an instance where staff phones and computers have been confiscated at Occidental College, Los Angeles.

Another form of monitoring directly related to academic performance is plagiarism detection and exam invigilation software. In Australia, concerns have been raised at the University of Melbourne for the trial of Cadmus, a software that roughly resembles Google Docs in that students will write their assignments directly online, and uses keystroke biometrics (typing speed, rhythm and pattern) and collects information on the student’s location. While this is an effective way to ensure academic honesty, students voiced their issues with this software back in 2018, arguing that being effectively kept under surveillance while you work is incredibly intrusive, and does not take into account the different ways in which students produce coursework (transcribing from hand-written notes, copy-pasting from your notes from a Word document, etc.) The trial run still went ahead, and is now in full use at the university.

Furthermore, because of the inability to have in-person exams, multiple universities across the world are using proctoring software , such as ProctorU. This type of software tracks eye movements, records the working environment of the student taking the exam, and effectively takes control of the student’s computer to ensure no copying is taking place. While there are some advantages of being able to take exams remotely, little consideration has been given on the effects this has on students and their performance in exams, which have found themselves in distressing situations. Traditional invigilation for in-person exams is less obtrusive and students don’t feel so pressured.

Data collection as surveillance

Foucault and Bentham’s Panopticon come to mind when discussing institutional surveillance (even my university’s lecture capture software is powered by a company called Panopto).

The Panopticon is a building, usually a jail or disciplinary establishment, arranged so that there is an observation tower placed at the centre of a circle of cells. Foucault writes about the prisoner of the Panopticon in his influential Discipline and Punish (1975) :

He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.

The now abandoned Presidio Modelo prison in Cuba, modelled after the Panopticon| The Guardian

The implications this concept has in the digital era is beyond the scope of this article, but in universities, the watchtower is not blatantly obvious to its students and staff, i.e. we are not always aware of the digital footprints we leave when we use universities’ digital resources. Data surveillance is intangible, which in many ways, makes it easier to normalise intrusive monitoring practices in HE, because we do not see.

Without verging into tinfoil- hat conspiracy theories, this can pose a very real threat to academic freedom. If every interaction is online, this is not only useful for data mining, but makes the content of teaching visible to everyone. This doesn’t mean that traditional teaching was not already subjected to supervision (this has never been the case- especially if you have 200 students attending your lecture). Nor does it mean that we should oppose the recording of learning material, as it can promote inclusive learning on campus. But being mindful of which companies record teaching, how this is stored and what is done with the data is necessary, and so far there is not much transparency on some technologies used by universities (something I’ve discussed elsewhere.)

Other problems associated with some data collection processes is the generation of a culture of distrust. Plagiarism detection software such as the aforementioned Cadmus or Turnitin may seek to encourage “good academic practice” - but what do students learn if we cannot run our work through the software first before submitting it? What “counts” as plagiarism? Furthermore, it can send the message that before even reading the assignment, staff looks for evidence of cheating, breeding suspicion and wariness in the student-teacher relationship. One wonders how is that conducive to a positive learning environment.

Post Covid-19 surveillance

Online teaching is here to stay, and the speed with which it has been adopted means that universities may not have considered the full implications. For international students who went back home, this means that their activity might be monitored by their governments, sometimes meaning that students and teachers need to be cautious with class discussions around potentially sensitive or controversial topics. This becomes even more problematic when universities themselves have little to no control of the student data collected by lecture capture, Learning Management Systems (such as Blackboard or Canvas) and any other platforms used to deliver online teaching.

Moreover, in the case that campuses partially re-open in autumn, contact tracing and temperature monitoring will very likely become ubiquitous to try and control outbreaks- even if we still cannot confirm whether asymptomatic carriers can transmit Covid-19 or not.

While the rapid transition to online and remote learning is commendable, the HE sector now has time to rethink their use of technology and ensure that students and teachers can interact in a safe, non-exploitative manner before the start of the new academic year. As students and members of academic staff, the best we can do is be aware.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 discusses our increased dependency on data to drive education programmes, and expands on some of the issues I’ve raised in this article.

Anthropology student. Spain/UK.

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