Digital Surveillance in Education

Loss of privacy is not such a bad thing when it comes to education says Professor George Siemens.

Digital surveillance of can help students, says Siemens, professor at Athabasca University and adviser for open learning courses at Thompson Rivers University.


Professor Siemens told CBC’s technology program Spark that monitoring student performance can be useful in determining when problems arise and what the remedies might be. Such programs track progress by monitoring the rate at which students read online material, and what parts they highlight and annotate. When problems are detected, intervention can be done either by faculty or automatically by the system itself.

Siemens doesn’t think this kind of surveillance is creepy at all not when the stakes are so high –the difference between passing and failing.

Digital monitoring by the university is just part of a useful technology says Siemens; part of “learning analytics.” A Wikipedia article, referring to Professor Siemens, defines it: “Learning analytics is the use of intelligent data, learner-produced data, and analysis models to discover information and social connections for predicting and advising people’s learning.”

The “social connections” part is troubling. Analytics that harvest personal information from social networks like Facebook and Twitter skirt the boundaries of school and private life. Also, they could be breaking B.C. privacy laws which prevent storage of student information held on foreign servers. For that reason, universities are moving away from cloud-based foreign servers like Dropbox and email accounts from Google and Microsoft.

By law, public institutions must protect student information from the prying eyes of foreign governments. As we now know from the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the U.S. spies in the National Security Agency (NSA) happily violate the privacy of anyone in the world.

The data culled from most social networks is stored on servers in the U.S.

Of course professors should know as much relevant student information as possible to provide remediation when skilled, industrious students are failing. Some of these barriers to success are family income and whether the student is the first in the family to attend a post-secondary institution. These things are known to affect performance.

Online courses could be tailor-made so that any qualified student who applies themselves to the course material could pass with a grade of A. The host of Spark, Nora Young, wondered if the tailoring of curriculum to the point of making it difficult for a student to fail wasn’t doing education a disservice –what’s the point of grades if everyone gets an A?

In the first place, replied Siemens, monitoring of students will determine who is lazy and therefore undeserving. Secondly, why shouldn’t students who have mastered the course material receive an A?

Why not, indeed? Student grades based on bell curves and Standard Deviation take no account of the personal profiles of students that have been proven to determine outcomes, the design of curricula in which well-designed courses should produce higher grades, and the skill of the teacher in delivering the course. All these factors should produce higher grades.

Too often, grades are used as proxy for students intelligence, not whether they have mastered the course materials. We have a measure of intelligence already: IQ tests.