Resisting the Panopticon

It’s fine for faculty to choose to record lectures for students, but systems more or less foisted on them from the top down pose serious threats to academic freedom, argues Michael Schwalbe.

November 12, 2021
 
 
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When I first heard of it, I thought Panopto was a joke. Who would name a lecture-recording system using a term that calls to mind an infamous theory about how best to surveil prison inmates? Perhaps the name “Big Brother” was already taken.

But, no, Panopto isn’t a spoof out of the pages of The Onion. It’s a Seattle-based company, started in 2007, that sells software for managing “video learning content.” Panopto’s website boasts that more than 1,000 leading businesses and academic institutions use its products. What the company sells to universities is a system for creating searchable libraries of an institution’s “video assets,” which include “lectures, flipped classroom recordings, campus events, guest presentations, athletic competitions, alumni outreach, live webcasts and more.” Panopto indeed.

Last spring, I learned that North Carolina State University planned to make Panopto available for faculty use. My understanding was that Panopto would be another option, like Screencast or Mediasite, for putting video-recorded course material online, at each faculty member’s discretion. It now appears that administrators intended to use Panopto in a different way.

In August, one business day before the start of the fall 2021 semester, I received, as did other faculty scheduled to teach in-person courses, an email from the university’s distance education unit saying that my lectures would be recorded automatically. The recording equipment installed in my classrooms would be turned on when my classes began and turned off when my classes ended. It was also my responsibility, the email went on say, to provide students with a link to the recordings.

Apparently, someone had decided that faculty would now be expected to allow what transpired in our classes—not just lectures, but every casual remark, every student comment and question—to be recorded and exist permanently in a digital archive. The email included a link to opt out of having one’s classes recorded. I clicked the link, opted out and then emailed my department colleagues urging them to do the same.

To be clear: it is, of course, fine if faculty choose to record lectures and post them online as aids to student learning. As long as faculty retain ownership and control of the material, which is their rightful intellectual property, and as long as recordings don’t violate students’ reasonable expectation of confidentiality in the classroom, there is little to complain about. But systems like Panopto, when more or less foisted on people from the top down, pose serious threats to academic and intellectual freedom.

Part of what makes the classroom a special space is that it allows us, faculty members and students alike, to express unconventional ideas and ask provocative and unsettling questions, free from the monitoring of external powers. Sometimes the ideas expressed are not merely unconventional but potentially threatening to those powers. If we allow ourselves to be monitored, we give up a kind of freedom that is essential to critical thought, intellectual growth and democracy.

Defenders of mandated automated classroom recording will justify the practice by touting increased student access to course content. No doubt this rhetoric, finely honed by the marketers of surveillance capitalism, will lull many faculty members into seeing Panopto and kindred systems as harmless, perhaps even beneficial. Those who object to having their classroom proceedings recorded by a central authority will be branded as uncaring about students.

But students, like faculty, will be harmed by the self-censorship that is inevitable when one knows that one is being watched. Students, like faculty, will be harmed by again being reminded of their apparent powerlessness in the face of administrative directives to submit to being watched. We will also be subject to the potential harms that can arise when unaccountable others possess data about us that we cannot review, correct or expunge.

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Claims by administrators, especially at public universities, that systems like Panopto make higher education more accessible and affordable obscure such harms. No doubt, those administrators will say that faculty members who object to turning the intellectual life of the university into a body of video assets are being not only selfish but also paranoid. After all, administrators, like most institutional authorities, see themselves as benevolent, interested only in what best serves the institution’s mission.

But we know those with more power than provosts and chancellors can subvert the university’s mission. In an age when state legislators seek to outlaw critical race theory in universities, is it hard to imagine those same legislators demanding to see a Panopto or similar system recording to verify what’s being discussed in classrooms? Is it hard to imagine that, when the United States undertakes its next Afghanistan, nationalist fervor might prompt demands to know if dissident professors are transmitting subversive ideas? Is it hard to imagine corporate donors to the university wanting to know if left-leaning faculty are criticizing them?

Demands to examine the recordings—and to ensure that there are recordings—seem only too likely. University administrators’ acquiescence to such demands is no less imaginable.

In the end, systems like Panopto are not about education for education’s sake. They are, first of all, about profit: from software sales and data harvesting. What such systems further enable—hence the appeal to administrators and their bosses—is the expropriation of faculty intellectual labor, the replacement of expensive tenured faculty by cheaper contingent faculty who can deliver recorded courses and political surveillance of what goes on in classrooms and elsewhere on university campuses.

As faculty members faced with the prospect of having our classrooms centrally surveilled, we should opt out immediately—and urge others to do the same. Resistance by faculty unions and shared governance bodies is also necessary, or else the intellectual freedom the classroom has historically afforded will be lost. The threat we face is not merely to privacy or to control over our conditions of work but also to our capacity as a society to democratically resist those who would presume to monitor us for our own good.

Bio

Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.

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