I was gearing up for a real stem-winder of a post about some recent events in surveilling students, marshalling my examples like this exploration of the prevalence and problems of proctoring software, and the recent teach-in “against surveillance.”
My central example was going to be drawn from Katherine Mangan’s recent, highly recommended, article on “The Surveilled Student,” which discusses that use of surveillance tools during the coronavirus pandemic, ostensibly as a way to keep students healthy and safe.
The students at Oakland University were slated to wear a “BioButton,” a “coin-size” device, which “would continuously measure their temperature, respiratory rate, and heart rate, and tell them whether they’d been in close contact with a button wearer who’d tested positive for COVID-19. In conjunction with a series of daily screening questions, the button would let them know if they were cleared for class.”
Rather than displaying my evidence into a series of arguments and inferences, I’m going to cut to the conclusion and instead spend time considering it as a proposition.
Higher education institutions should be oriented around an ethic of care.
Surveilling students is inconsistent with an ethic of care.
In fact, surveilling students is the opposite of an ethic of care.
These are, of course, arguable propositions. I should probably explain in greater detail about what I mean by an “ethic of care.”
In my view, postsecondary education institutions should aim to develop the intellectual, social and economic potential of students while also engaging with the needs of the broader local, state and national communities in which its institutions operate. To do this successfully requires operating from a sense of mission grounded in an ethic of care.
Considering students specifically, for the skeptical, an ethic of care does not mean “coddling” students, nor does it mean treating them like customers who are always right. It also means treating them as something other than credit-hour units whose tuition fuels the operations of the institutions.
An ethic of care requires one to center the well-being of the student when it comes to decision making. For me, this means respecting student autonomy and freedom. Again, freedom does not mean doing whatever anyone wants, but instead requires one to be a responsible member of the community. The ethic of care can travel in both directions. It also means not being coerced into behaviors that demand sacrificing one’s freedom and autonomy.
For me, an easy way to judge whether or not something violates an ethic of care for students is whether or not I would agree to be subjected to the same requirement as a condition of doing my work.
For example, test-proctoring software fails my ethic of care because I would not allow my own work to be monitored in this fashion, particularly when I’m under particular pressure to perform at my best in a timely way.
If my pedagogy requires me to engage in outright coercion for students to complete my course requirements, I’m going to rethink my pedagogy. This is the thought process that eventually led me to ungrade my classes.
There is certainly room for debate on where to draw the line. I am admittedly somewhat maximalist when it comes to privileging student autonomy because I think this freedom is well suited to developing the critical thinking skills of writers. Requiring students to be maximally responsible for their work, rather than me playing the role of sheriff, spy and jailer, pays significant dividends.
The students at Oakland University decided to assert their rights to not be coerced into wearing the BioButton, which ultimately led to the institution merely strongly recommending that students wear the device.
This strikes me as a reasonable accommodation in line with an ethic of care. I do not love technology that tracks students, but if there is sufficient transparency and the ability to opt out, fair enough. But perhaps consider how an ethic of care may have pointed toward an online semester, which would’ve obviated the need to track student movements.
Students at CUNY and the University of Illinois are organizing against the use of online test-proctoring systems. Colleges that believe students must be spied on while taking exams have a disconnect between their operations and their mission. If the focus is on learning, students don’t need to be spied on.
Schools are both justifying the use of testing-surveillance software, a source of student anxiety, and social media “listening” tools that are meant to detect student anxiety and help signal the need for intervention.
An ethic of care that considers the fact that students learn best when they are not anxious and depressed would both save some dough and probably lead to some better outcomes.
Any time some aspect of institutional operations seems to demand a technological solution, there may be a cheaper, superior alternative, and the way to find it is to start with an ethic of care.