Sunday, February 22, 2009

E-Learning and the Panopticon

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 instructor? 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 observing 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?


bill7tx said...

My approach probably would have been to tell the (apparently lying) colleague exactly what I had discovered from the LMS, as soon as I had the information. If the colleague had no reasonable explanation of this discrepancy, and made no effort to do an actual diligent review of the courseware offerings, I would have no problem informing his manager about it.

Unknown said...

Jane, I loved this post and the "panopticon" metaphor. The dilemma you describe is an important one. I work with call center recordings, reviewing them to help clients find patterns they can use to improve their products, training and customer service.

From my perspective, the most important thing is that the subject of the study must be made aware that surveillance is possible and is likely to be used. The purpose of the surveillance must also be shared. In this case, it's trying to help someone improve.

If the subject doesn't know, it compromises the lessons learned, and causes conundrums like the one you describe.

regards, John

Anonymous said...

This is a tougher question than it appears. One consideration (I'm musing, not asking) is the nature of the arrangement with Megan Manager. Was this a favor for a colleague, or activity included in a formal (as in for-hire) arrangement?

The closer to the latter, the more I'd feel obligated to be candid with Megan, whose interest was in improving the performance or the effectiveness of Ian Instructor. What other resources does she have for determining whether Ian in fact studied the system to the extent he claims?

Whatever that arrangement, having discovered the gap between what Ian said he did, and what the LMS said he did, what's the next step? An email to Ian, making clear that the system does track and that its record differs substantially from his, does two things: makes him aware of the tracking, and lets him know how easily the records can be retrieved.

It's possible, though unlikely, that the system failed to track his activity. It's also very likely that the next time in, he'd spent quite a bit more time, and visit quite a few more pages.

In a corporate or organizational setting, I don't think there's any question: the organization has a right to see data from the progress of its employees or students through courses that the organization provides or requires.

Who gets to see that may vary, but there are few courses with data as sensitive as a list of the employees who consulted the Employee Assistance Program counselors (or the students who visited the Student Mental Health Center). Instructor/student relationships are not protected in the way attorney/client ones are.

Speaking of which, I don't think just anybody should be able to rummage around inside the LMS, but in a hierarchical organization, some people can make that happen--as can a lawyer who delivers an interrogatory.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jane. Love the philosophical tone you're taking. Panopticon is a good metaphor for the new level of surveillance we can all be under. I never considered the rights of the college student, and the effect lurking by management could have on the learner-teacher relationship and the learner's willingness to provide content. Interesting food for thought, as usual! Tommy

Anonymous said...

Sometimes we're our own worst enemies, aren't we? How many times have I said, "it's not about us."? Your experience is disturbing. I thought this stuff only happened where I work.

Nagtad Host said...

Jane - I have discovered recently that my employer is now blocking me from blogs, including the professional association blog I lead.

I appreciate very much the protection. Apparently, blogs are only used for personal use, especially e-dating.

I'm sure, my friend, that you get my obscure point. Passing judgment without actually looking for content....liar, liar, pants on FIRE!!!!

RGoutal said...

Quite fascinating topic and nicely introduced. I have been creating my own online course and while it does not utilize any elearning platform, it is somewhat interactive, involving email exchanges and other activities. Many of the lessons utilize a small inexpensive quiz program. When the student presses "submit" the data goes directly to my email box. (I cannot afford an LMS.) This is not evident to the user. Sometimes I am literally watching student punch through the quiz repeatedly 7-8 times in a row, with an start/submit time averaging every 2 minutes. If that isn't "just guessing until I pass" what is it? In a similar way, as I piloted my material, I felt troubled by confronting the user (by email long distance or by telephone) about the silly behavior. It occurred to me that it would be better to have full disclosure, like those phone calls "which may be recorded for training purposes." I subsequently addressed this in the orientation piece to the series of lessons. During the orientation, they try out the quiz mechanism with some guaranteed easy questions, and I respond with an email that shows the exact data that I received after they submitted it. I also comment that I will be observing the number of trials and the length of time it takes to complete the activities. And although the quiz program provides its own automatic feedback, I inform the user that they can expect me to provide help and comments as I observe them work, beyond the built in responses.

In other words, would your dilemma cease to exist if every user were informed of how your eLearning is "transparent" to the trainers, or some such... thus essentially warning your colleague that what time he took online was tracked?

Dr. Christiana said...

Great post! As a former higher ed DE instructional designer, I was once almost fired for telling a then-WebCT-hating professor that his course would do just as well in Yahoo or Google groups. The professor thought I was a pillar of academic freedom. The DE director forbade me from speaking to him anymore.

My thought pattern was: at this uni, no one tells the prof what books to select, where to make his handout copies, what to say, what research to do, what videos to show...he has one even looks at him anymore. Why should they suddenly care what web portal he uses to disperse his digital content?

Jane Bozarth said...

Christiana: A professor at NC State University got into trouble some years back for teaching a course via MySpace. Not only did it upset those with access to the panopticon, it upset the registrar/budget people, too.