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Monitoring… tracking… it’s all surveillance

Three posts on student surveillance at colleges and universities came through my feeds recently.

From Drew Harwell at The Washington Post, “Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands” focuses primarily on the SpotterEDU app, which calls itself an “automated attendance monitoring and early alerting platform” and is utilized by athletics departments to monitor track student athletes.

Harwell’s article is full of quotes from IHE staff that are troubling at best and illustrate an ignorance about the [lack of] actual benefits that these tracking systems provide and a blind belief in the unconfirmed benefits of “big data.” As one librarian quoted in the article notes, IHE’s are completely missing the point:

“[The use of these systems] embodies a very cynical view of education — that it’s something we need to enforce on students, almost against their will,” said Erin Rose Glass, a digital scholarship librarian at the University of California San Diego. “We’re reinforcing this sense of powerlessness … when we could be asking harder questions, like: Why are we creating institutions where students don’t want to show up?”

Source: “Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands”, Washington Post

Furthermore, these systems tend to reinforce white, upper-middle class expectations of “normal” student activity, putting students from already vulnerable populations into even more vulnerable positions. Jenny Davis, responding to Harwell’s article, writes:

“These tracking technologies veer towards [mechanisms of control], portending a very near future in which extrinsic accountability displaces intrinsic motivation and data extraction looms inevitable. […] Speaking of data extraction, these tracking technologies run on data. Data is a valuable resource. Historically, valuable resources are exploited to the benefit of those in power and the detriment of those in positions of disadvantage.”

Source: “A Clear Care for Resisting Student Tracking”, Cyborgology

Finally, Erin Glass (the librarian quoted above), has provided a useful “Ten weird tricks for resisting surveillance capitalism in and through the classroom.” I especially love #2, 4 and 5:

2.  “Inform your students on your syllabus — say, by adding a sentence or two in that section about academic integrity — that many of the technologies they use to support their educational activities likely practice forms of data collection that are ethically dubious even if legally accepted.”

4.  “Ask students to make a list of at least ten digital tools they’ve used formally or informally in the most recent two months of their educational activities. […] Ask each student to (a) find and (b) copy/paste at least one ToS into a clean text-searchable file. Then spend a meeting engaging in some good ol’ close reading of these Terms as a class and discussing.”

5. “Get to know your campus IT.”

Source: “Ten weird tricks for resisting surveillance capitalism in and through the classroom . . . next term!”, HASTAC

Librarians, whether they teach classes or not, might consider starting #4 on their own to learn more about the systems they use and encourage students to use. With our core professional values to support us, there’s a good chance we will be the last holdouts on this trend toward increased surveillance of student life. Let’s get in-formation.