Education’s Surveillance Arms Race

Paternalism is a hardy perennial in higher education. Perhaps for obvious reasons, once we begin thinking about our students as our children, or, better, as our customers, we stop thinking of them as adult learners. As children, we need a lot of guidance; as adults, we have to learn to set our own agendas and then follow it over an extended period of time. It’s a difficult process and it’s probably always to some extent a matter of trial and error. At key moments, then, we, as teachers, have to just stand back and watch.

That’s why, as the cliche goes, failure is so important. Adult learners need to be independent learners, and independent learning is, well, learned. Some teachers and administrators are as uncomfortable with this idea as any student. If my children fail, I fail; if my customer’s are unhappy, my shareholders are unhappy. So, as a recent article on NPR suggests (University Attendance Scanners Make Some Uneasy), the paternal temptation is to find a technological fix that would save our customers, uh, students, from themselves.

What’s great about young adult learners– and exasperating– is that they follow their creativity down whatever lines seem interesting. So if the universities install scanners that will track attendance for large lectures, we can be sure that students will respond with a hack that allows you to check in from the comfort of your dorm room. As usual, these technological fixes are designed to address problems created by an alienated and alienating form of education. Scale down those lectures and I bet attendance would go up.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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