Bentham developed the idea of the panopticon, a prison design that provided a single central point from which all prisoners/cells/activities could be observed. (Many American shopping malls adopted this as a design guide, too.)Foucault later wrote at length of the pervasiveness of the concept -- the need to observe and regulate -- as it extended to other institutions such as hospitals and schools.
And it extends to a new realm, now. Consider universities providing "distance education" courses via a course management tool like Blackboard, into which administration can ostensibly drop at any time to read student discussion comments, watch instructor videos, review recordings of virtual classroom meetings, and access other daily course activity. While the Dean could always drop by the traditional classroom, he/she didn't do it very often, and when it happened you knew he/she was there. Distance learning allows for a new level of observation/supervision, including simple lurking, for those who choose to use it.
I find myself in the position of panopticon resident from time to time, not always intentionally, and most often in dealing with data generated by an LMS or other tracking system. For instance: At his manager's request I provided an e-learning/technology resistant colleague -- someone with whom I need to remain collegial -- with a free login to a suite of commercial e-learning courses relevant to content the trainer taught. The product includes really excellent, hard-to-build-from-scratch simulations with branching decicisionmaking. Months later the trainer dropped by my office to describe at length how much time he'd spent examining the courses, detailing the myriad reasons they just wouldn't work in replacing, supplementing, or extending the content he taught (um, customer service, e-mail rules, MBTI, and basic supervision). He went on and on about how the courses were not relevant to the public sector, with "everything" he looked at targeted at people in sales and manufacturing. When I went into the system to review product usage for the quarter, I saw that he'd spent exactly 10 minutes and 11 seconds in one course, and began one simulation but did not finish it. That's it.
What are the ethical implications here?
Should university administration make their presence known when dropping in to an academic course? Who "owns" the course? The university, the faculty teaching it, or the learners enrolled in it? Should class discussions be a private matter between students and insructor? Should students have a right to say who should have access to the "content" they generate during the course? Do students have the right to be notified when someone other than the instructor is ovserving them online?
Should we be more explicit with learners that online activity can be tracked, and what effect might that have on learner interest and motivation? How might it affect the learner-trainer relationship? How can you say it without sounding like Big Brother?
What do we do when, as with my own example, we are privy to knowledge we'd just as soon we didn't have? Not long ago my colleague's boss called to discuss her continued issues with the resistant classroom trainer, who had shared his "findings" with her. What would you have said? Would you have confronted the trainer, who is also a colleague? What are the rights of the learner in the online world? What is the role of the trainer/consultant in this situation?
What rules should exist for those of us who have access to the panopticon?