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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Choose Cooperation and Collaboration, Rather Than Surveillance

An alternative to getting into a technologically mediated academic dishonesty arms race.

May 21, 2020
 
 

One way or another, the operative word for the fall semester is going to be “monitoring.”

If instruction is in-person, institutions will need to monitor the locations, body temperatures and personal contacts of every individual. There’s already talk of students being required to certify they’re symptom-free on a daily basis via an app. If a positive COVID-19 case is found, there will be more monitoring, including isolation and quarantine.

If instruction remains online, I believe we will see the continuation of ongoing conversations around whether or not students should be required to turn their cameras on during a Zoom course and how to proctor exams online that were previously conducted in person.

I have some worries, because a synonym for monitoring is “surveillance,” and while there may be some distinctions between the two, once we embrace the former, it’s often only a matter of time before we descend into the latter.

This spring, many instructors experienced firsthand the difficulties of shifting in-person instruction online, how things we take for granted, like being able to be present in the same room, are suddenly much more complicated. The “paranoia” about cheating has resulted in an embrace of technology like Proctorio, which is 100 percent surveillance software predicated on the belief that if students can cheat, they will.

Philosophically, I am strongly against employing surveillance against students in order to monitor their work. I have a whole chapter in how surveillance harms the development of writers in Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Writing is thinking, and people do not think well or freely when they are being watched.

I can collect plenty of information from student writing and self-reflection to help them improve their writing processes. I don’t need to watch them actually do it.

Assuming students are going to cheat is a sure route to a vicious cycle that benefits no one other than the tech companies that claim to provide a tool that solves the problem. TurnItIn can’t catch custom papers written through online essay mills, so TurnItIn develops an algorithm (WriteCheck) that compares a student’s writing over the course of the semester to see if it is all coming from the same author.

It doesn’t take long to figure out a method to defeat the measure. Run the purchased paper through the WriteCheck program until it isn’t flagged. Good business for TurnItIn; useless as a pedagogical tool.

I’m certain Proctorio can be (and has been) defeated as well, and if one loophole is closed, another will soon open. Meanwhile, you’re spending a lot of time litigating academic dishonesty charges.

It seems as though there’s a shorter, better route where evaluations are reconceived so students are disincentivized from cheating, as opposed to getting into the academic dishonesty technological arms race.

Perhaps more importantly, if we embrace surveillance for students to make sure they’re doing what we expect them to, what makes us think that similar technologies can’t be turned on faculty, particularly when we are working from a distance?

A recent article in The New York Times illustrates what could be waiting for us should accountability come calling. Times Europe tech correspondent Adam Satariano downloaded employee-monitoring software Hubstaff, which takes periodic snapshots of your computer and phone screens which can then be accessed by a supervisor who then can reconstruct your day. It also provides an “activity score,” the percentage of time the worker is typing or moving the computer cursor inside a document.

Satariano and his editor described the three-week experiment with one word -- “Ick.” It was both overly intrusive and not particularly reflective of the work Satariano was doing. In one of the weeks Satariano was being monitored, he was only “active” 45 percent of his working time, but this was because he was conducting interviews by phone or doing other work away from the computer.

The tool does not capture the work.

College professoring is a lot like being a journalist. Much of the work would be invisible to this sort of tracking. Me staring into space thinking about if I’m going to have the leftover pizza for lunch or instead make a sandwich looks a lot like me thinking about the next sentence for a blog post.

And neither of them looks like “work” to an outside observer.

For generations, professors have been given significant autonomy to manage themselves. It is one of the chief perks of the job, but I am imagining another online semester where administrations are concerned about the negativity surrounding online instruction, and the overall precarious nature of the higher education enterprise, and in an effort to “prove” that faculty are working, to start tracking some of these activities.

The incentives to “perform,” as opposed to “do,” work, would be obvious. If you’re expected to produce a certain amount of words per day as part of your scholarship, you make sure you type those words to please the monitoring algorithm. If you’re required to meet your synchronous Zoom class, even though you don’t find synchronous meetings conducive to your course, you stage one long enough for the screenshot to be taken by the software and call it quits.

Anxiety and concern over whether or not students are doing the work is understandable when we don’t have our usual methods of checking in during class, and when we are literally so distant.

But my general view is that if you would not work well under a monitoring/surveillance regime, what makes you think students will?

The belief that students must be watched and prodded and ridden because they’re students is an assumption of defectiveness and comes from an inherently defensive place. The tools of compliance that are so handily exercised in person have no potency at a distance. We must rethink and reconsider.

Rather than monitor, why not motivate and incentivize? Think of the conditions under which you do your best work and then try to provide those for students.

Even better, ask students what they need to do their best work and try to provide those conditions to them. On Twitter, sociologist/author Eve Ewing asked students to share the most “effective/memorable/helpful” things a professor had done during this remote learning period. The answers are rich with insights, and while many of them are rooted in connecting with students, none of them have anything to do with monitoring or surveillance.

Surviving the challenges of the coming semester and beyond is going to require collaboration and cooperation.

Treating students with the respect and according to the values by which we would like to be treated as faculty sounds like a good foundation to build upon going forward.

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