by Bob Cole, Director of Exploratory Initiatives & Partnerships, DLINQ; with reflections from Dr. Amy Collier, Joe Antonioli (Sr. Curriculum Innovation Specialist), and Steven Mockler (DLINQ Intern and Middlebury Institute Masters candidate International Education Management and Public Administration)
“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine… if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.”
-Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
“Too often in education and ed-tech, we have confused surveillance for care. We need to watch students closely, we tell ourselves, because we want them to be safe and to do well. But caring means trusting, and trusting means being able to turn off a controlling gaze. Unfortunately, frighteningly, it seems we are turning it up.”
– Audrey Watters, “School Work and Surveillance”, HackEducation.com, April 2020
Back on December 1, 2020 a small group from DLINQ joined an international team of educators, technologists, instructional designers and digital pedagogy experts including Maha Bali, Benjamin Doxtdator, sava Saheli Singh, Jesse Stommel, Chris Gilliard, and Audrey Watters for a networked learning and fundraising event called the Teach in #AgainstSurveillance. Our office had been tracking the developments leading up to the strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) by Proctorio against Ian Linkletter, a learning technology specialist at the University of British Columbia. Ian is being sued because he spoke out against the Proctorio platform over Twitter, supporting his critiques by sharing links to openly available video Youtube documentation which the company claims were proprietary. By definition a SLAPP suit is designed to silence and intimidate critics with the burden of funding a legal defense. The teach-in organizers facilitated a series of provocations, discussion and presentations addressing the daily presence and harms of surveillance technologies in and outside of higher education settings and importantly asking questions like, “How do we as educators help to make our students aware of the differences between surveillance and care? How can we make other faculty we teach with aware of these differences and bring these differences to the forefront in educational technology systems where we’re encouraged to confuse surveillance with care?
In response to and in the spirit of the teach-in, for this detox we offer a collection of brief reflections from those of us in DLINQ who were able to attend the event. We hope these might encourage you to notice, reflect, and consider taking action to stand up against systems that surveil, and in their place advocate for and build digital learning spaces, technologies, and practices that are more consentful.
The Teach-In provided much-needed reminders about how harmful surveillance of our students can be and how antithetical surveillance is to the ethic of care for our students. What sticks with me from those conversations, and especially Audrey Watters’ remarks, is how harmful these technologies can be to university/college faculty and staff, especially those who are in precarious positions (e.g., staff, non-tenured or contingent faculty). The lawsuit against Ian is a horrific reminder of the repercussions faculty and staff face when they call attention to concerns about privacy, data misuse, and surveillance of students. Lawsuits like Proctorio’s are intended to have this chilling effect–to keep concerned faculty, staff, and students quiet and compliant. Like other carceral technologies, companies like Proctorio aim to control their users and their critics using coercion, intimidation, and yes, threats of legal action that allow them to flex their wealth and emperil the livelihoods of folks like Ian. This is unacceptable and all the more reason why WE DON’T NEED THESE TECHNOLOGIES IN OUR SCHOOLS.
The pandemic-induced emergency shift to remote teaching this past year left little room for reflection on the impacts that our heavy and oftentimes unexamined reliance on enterprise technologies and platforms has had on us. The Teach-in #Against Surveillance demonstrated for me the urgency and potential for engaging our collective imaginations and authority to reject exploitative technologies and teaching practices that dehumanize students or undermine the deeply relational project of teaching and learning. For me, the teach-in has helped to further normalize the use of the word surveillance in framings of education technologies. When I think of surveillance words like policing, invasive, punitive, enemy, fear, power, danger, defensive, pervasive, secret, military, trauma come to mind. In response, as technologists, instructional designers, and decision-makers we must continue to, as Jenny Odell suggests, “hold open the space of refusal” (How to Do Nothing, p.77) whether it be technological or pedagogical. We need to commit ourselves to the slow and reflective path of humanizing teaching and learning whether on the ground in classroom, hybrid, or fully online contexts. The pandemic has made clear that we need to look beyond the surface of our tools and question our practices to make room for classroom technologies and pedagogies built on an ethic of care like those promoted by trauma informed teaching and learning: safety, trustworthiness and transparency; support and connection; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment through voice and choice; cultural, historical and gender lenses; resilience, growth and change. As Benjamin Doxdator, one of the teach-in panelists reflected, “…every time we give up the kind of back and forth reciprocity with our [students] and hand it over to systems of surveillance we lose deep and important pedagogical moments.” Reciprocity here echoes the principle of mutuality, of presence, and of being seen and heard as whole human beings. It is remarkable that Ian’s legal defense Gofundme has raised over $50,000 to date. It shouldn’t have to be this way!
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I agreed to attend the surveillance teach-in, but I left inspired by the conversation. Unlike other digital events, this thrummed with energy and vigorous exchange. I appreciated the structures the group used to break down established power structures, and that it centered the concerns of students by answering our questions first. It filled me with a sense of empowerment, respect, and care that is often missing in these discussions.
Unfortunately, many questions signaled to me that students across the country are fighting battles that have already been lost. They asked how they could get universities to roll back surveillance technology or how they could opt out. Few, if any, focused on how we could preempt our institutions from considering surveillance technology in the first place. Since then I’ve wondered why we assume a reactionary stance instead of a proactive stance?
One thing that stands out to me is that many people still believe they can neatly bifurcate their on and offlives. Many still consider technology and the internet as add-ons when they are very much essential. Our digital bodies are important, and we must endow them with just as much respect and care as we do our physical bodies. By reconceptualizing the importance of our onlife, we will advocate for it before it comes under threat.
Two of my daughters are in college, so when we transitioned to remote learning I found myself observing their experiences. It was an opportunity to see the impact of the choices that instructors make when designing activities for their courses. My reflection on the Teach-in is connected to an experience one of my daughters had with a final exam.
During the weeks leading up to the exam time I watched as my daughter’s anxiety increased. All of us, my wife, her sister, and I, all knew the day and time because she had asked us to not be online during the exam.
“You will need to make sure you have proper internet connection for the duration of the exam.”
She planned where she would be sitting, choosing a spot close to the router with good lighting, paying attention to what was going to be behind her.
“You need to make sure you have a functional camera on your device that allows me to see you clearly during the test.”
The material was already going to be challenging. During this exam she would be observed by people, some of them she could and could not see, and she would be recorded.
“There will be several people proctoring the exam… They will not necessarily have their cameras on, but they will be monitoring with me.”
On the day of the exam she paced around until the starting time. She spent the next two hours with her eyes on the screen as her camera recorded her answering each question one by one. She would never see her answers, only a score.
There are a number of stories like this, in some the student’s home environment adds to the anxiety of being watched. Their internet connection is spotty, their living space does not have an optimal location, and they have siblings and pets that do not know that they need to be quiet during a specific time. The disruptions, the invasions into their living space, are recorded and reviewed, stored on a stranger’s server.
Students pay money for an education, why do we give that money to a company whose purpose adds stress to an already stressful situation? Is this really in service of our students? And is it ethical to work with a company that uses that money to sue a colleague who is acting with a similar purpose: holding them accountable for their practices?
- Encourage students, faculty, and staff to stand up together against proctoring technologies – here is an example from UBC; other examples of student-led action in this article
- Screen one of the three Screening Surveillance Project video shorts developed by Sava Saheli Singh from the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University and lead a discussion with the accompanying facilitator guide
- Advocate for and experiment with “ungrading” practices that promote learning through rather by assessment such as grade-free zones, self-assessments, process letters, contract grading, digital portfolios, and co-created rubrics.
In Defence of Ian Linkletter, Brenna Clark Gray authored, signed by ed tech experts and academics around the world
Teach in #AgainstSurveillance event video, Youtube recording
There Are No Guardrails on Our Privacy Dystopia, Chris Gilliard and David Golumbia
Schoolwork and Surveillance, Audrey Watters (April 2020)
Principles for Trauma-informed Teaching and Learning and Trauma Informed Teaching (video), Northern Illinois University
Building Consentful Tech Zine, Allied Media
Featured Image: Screenshot from slides prepared by Dr. Jesse Stommel, Photo by Victor Larracuente, Unsplash