It’s no secret that online learning has its problems, witnessed in the historic failure and drop-out rates resulting from thrown-together course overhauls in the early COVID months. Less widely reported has been another kind of failure owing to a loss faith in educational institutions and a widening trust gap between teachers and students.
Inherent school power inequities have aggravated antagonisms – now made even worse by a range of surveillance and security technologies. The distance in “distance learning” can create an atmosphere of alienation and distrust. When the in-person classroom is reduced to a screen image, teachers and students can seem more like abstractions than actual people.
This opens the door for all sorts of communication failures and misunderstandings, not to mention stereotyping and harm. The objectifying tendencies of media representations long have been associated distortions in the way individuals and groups view each other, whether in the marketing of products, sensationalizing news items, or spreading ideologies on social networks. When “Zoom school” does this, underlying beliefs and assumptions can overtake the reality of encounters, generating attitudes that destabilize the learning environment.
These problems have become especially evident in the panic about student dishonesty in online learning, as the absence of classroom proximity quickly escalated in into assumptions of cheating. Early in the 2020s a torrent of news reports warned of an “epidemic” of dishonesty in online learning, with some surveys showing over 90 percent educators believing cheating occurred more in distance education than in-person instruction.[i] New technologies often have stoked such fears, in this instance building on the distrust many faculty hold toward students, some of it racially inflected. [ii] Closer examination of the issue has revealed that much of the worry came from faculty with little direct knowledge of the digital classroom, online student behavior, and preventative techniques now commonly used. Indeed more recent research has shown no significant differences between in-person and online academic integrity.[iii]
In its coverage of the issue, Inside Higher Education remarked on the recent uptick in cheating reports by asking, “Is this entirely the fault of students or are faculty contributing to the problem by emphasizing rote memory of facts, figures and formulas?”[iv] Reviewing the actual evidence at hand, Inside Higher Education came to the conclusion that anecdotal reports of increased cheating in online courses may have more to do with closer online scrutiny and the use of electronic tools. The report also suggested that “instructors may be catching more online cheating because they are looking harder for cheating online than they did on campus.”[v]
The fuss over cheating wasn’t missed by the test security industry. Fears of student dishonesty provided the perfect climate for an assortment of new surveillance products, many of which have proven harmful to students. The most intrusive of these are automated exam proctoring applications like Examity, Kryterion, Proctorio, ProctorTrack, ProctorU, Respondus, and PSI. Serving both to verify identities and monitor individual students during testing, the services require test-takers to surrender control of their computers and cameras to proctoring software. Aside from the underlying creepiness of this, the camera requirement has been criticized on multiple grounds, not the least of which is its tendency for error in reading any kind of face, body, or behavior that falls outside of programmed norms.
Mistakes have been reported with students of black/ brown skin color or gender non-conforming facial features not being “read” (i.e., literally not recognized) by the software algorithm. As Shea Swager has written, this is a classic case of difference being regarded as deviance with select groups treated as suspects as a consequence. Beyond race and gender presentation, proctoring errors also result among students with “medical conditions such as neuromuscular disorders or spinal injuries that prohibit them from sitting for long periods of time, those who need to use the restroom frequently, or anyone who needs to administer medication.”[vi] Additional behavioral “anomalies” such those associated with of certain disabilities (agitation, facial tics, the need to take medications, reading questions to oneself) also can present problems. Anything the software deems out of the ordinary is flagged as suspect and subjected to further scrutiny. Finally, many students assert that being watched in their rooms or homes is an invasion of privacy, an embarrassment, or even a risk.
Students I’ve spoken with describe added levels of anxiety resulting from such proctoring, often piling new kinds of stress onto an already fraught examination. So damaging has such “security” become that many universities are calling into question the very premise of high stakes testing as an educational device. After decades of research proving the unfairness of instruments like the SAT and ACT, more recent studies have revealed that excessive reliance on testing works against students in numerous ways, and is especially harmful to the underserved.[vii] With new understandings about learning differences, it now is widely accepted among education researchers that no single test can be fair to all students.[viii] Put another way, a so-called “standardized” instrument is valid only for a standardized student population. The same holds true with exam contents. While the premise of uniformity may work in testing somekinds of knowledge (math, engineering, science, etc. ), it breaks down when applied to all knowledge (arts, humanities, etc.). Beyond this, high value tests undermine learning itself. Especially at highly competitive universities, student arrive already-conditioned to zero in only what will be on exams. This works against broader knowledge a course might offer as well as the exploration of depth beyond a test answer. Worse still these practices reinforce a zero-sum-game competitiveness in which students view the success of others as a threat. This has been shown to diminish cooperation and teamwork, while also eroding empathy toward others.[ix]
The presumed need for security and integrity begs the issue of what needs protection, why, and from whom – as knowledge is objectified as a commodity at risk of theft. This adds a whole new meaning to what Paulo Freire termed the “banking model” of education in which students are seen as holders of empty accounts.[x] In today’s neoliberal age every value is rendered in monetary terms, especially with the growing corporatization of the university. In this new environment, knowledge becomes a currency in short supply, to fought over and earned by individuals. This precious knowledge must be guarded, protected, and kept from the lazy and dishonest, who threaten to undermine the moral fabric of the system.
The premise of knowledge as commodity is nowhere more apparent than in the near-universal use of anti-plagiarism software, the most common brands of which are Turnitin, Unicheck, Copyscape and Grammerly. Ownership of ideas is the whole point of these companies, as well as an emphasis on originality, individualism, and the threat of theft. But to thrive these companies have the tricky task of naming a risk but keeping their messaging positive. Often this is accomplished through appeal to moral idealism. While Copyscape takes the direct approach (“Who’s stealing your content?”), most of the anti-plagiarism industry makes softer appeals.[xi] Unicheck wants to “promote academic integrity” and Turnitin promises to “empower students to do their best, original work.”[xii]
Ironically, many of these companies themselves abscond with knowledge by retaining copies of texts run through their detection systems. The vast majority of students are unaware when submitting a paper that they are unwittingly becoming part of an unpaid labor pool. Turnitin has the largest such database with 200 million student papers.[xiii] In this sense Turnitin and other anti-plagiarism services function much in the spirit of online giants like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter for which billions of users provide free content. As educators Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel have framed the contradiction, “While students who use Turnitin are discouraged from copying other work, the company itself can strip mine and sell student work for profit.” [xiv] Morris and Stommel continue:
Turnitin isn’t selling teachers and administrators a product. The marketing on their website frames the Turnitin brand less as software and more as a pedagogical lifestyle brand. The rest of the advertising copy is smoke and mirrors. They are “Yourpartner in education with integrity.” They are “trusted by 15,000 institutions and 30 million students.” (We feel certain they didn’t ask those 30 million students whether they “trust” Turnitin).[xv]
This promotional sleight-of-hand makes it seem like students actually want to be checked, presumably to protect themselves from each other. Such tactics have become standard practice in the home security and firearms industries, wherein the goal is to promote the belief that danger is everywhere. And certainly in today’s culture that task isn’t very difficult. The U.S population receives a daily diet of reports about hackers, computer viruses, identity theft, telephone scams, election fraud, banking crime, foreign agents –– not to mention politicians and cable news pandering to fears of school shootings, local crime, child abductions, and civil unrest.
Perhaps more than any time in U.S. history, the American population finds itself immersed in what has been termed a “culture of fear,” as sociologist Barry Glassner first noted two decades ago.[xvi] The key characteristic of the culture of fear is that most people worry about threats of things like crime and violence far more than necessary. Because the media feeds people a constant diet of often sensationalized “fear” stories, perceptions of risk become overblow. For instance, as coverage of murders increased by 600 percent in a decade, their actual occurrence declined by 20 percent.[xvii] Worse still, that dramatic increase in coverage tended to overreport of crime by black and brown men, adding a layer of racialized fear to the mix. Not helping this pattern of disinformation has been the rise of politically-motivated distortion. Famously highlighted by the Twitter antics of Donald Trump, misinformation on social media continues to amplify social division and fear, despite efforts by platforms like Facebook to limit harmful messaging.
Add to this historic tendencies in western culture to demonize youth. As criminal justice scholars Brian MacIntosh and Annabelle Phillips have summarized, “almost every decade has seen concerns over particular groups of youth, dating back to knife gangs in the 19th century.”[xviii] Since then representations of young people have largely depicted them in problematic terms, either as a source of difficulties, or as being at risk. By the 2000s these concerns became generalized “from a focus on specific groups of young people into a total panic about young people as a whole,” MacIntosh and Phillips added. “Put simply, young people as a generation were now seen as the problem, posing a threat to the fabric of society.”[xix] While one might assume that educators would recognize such distortions and maintain more sympathetic views, anyone who works in the field knows such is not the case. Whether at a school or college, teachers reflect the same spectrum of attitudes and ideologies as elsewhere in society, albeit in the slightly more progressive direction characteristic of public service fields. In some instances faculty have little interest in students as a group, especially at research universities where many research faculty aren’t hired or evaluated for their teaching skills.
Combine the culture of fear with the demonization of youth and you have the perfect climate for what is now seen in America’s K-12 and higher education. Metal detectors and video surveillance greet students at the doors of high schools, with locker searchers routine, and zero-tolerance policies commonplace. Suspensions, expulsions, and arrests have become routine for many poor students of color.[xx]Noted education writer Henry A. Giroux has written of “schools as punishment factories” that deliver what he has termed a “pedagogy of oppression –– whether in the form of high stakes testing, teaching for the test, or punitive disciplinary measures.”[xxi] Even teachers are subject to their own brand of authoritarian control as they face a growing barrage of metrics and performance requirements. Districts attack unions and push for unregulated charter schools, while tech companies offer ways to automate instruction and create ever more sophisticated testing. To Giroux this all is “part of a broader attempt to destroy the social state and the institutions that produce the formative culture necessary for democracy.”[xxii]
The rise of academic surveillance culture is hardly surprising in such a context, nor are the methods through which it is carried out. For decades critical theory has talked about the “gaze” as both an social phenomenon and an aspect of visual media.[xxiii] Anyone who’s been gawked at by an uninvited observer or following by a police car knows what it’s like to be the object of a gaze – and the power dynamics often entailed. Decades ago feminist film scholars began discussing the “male gaze” in movies and advertising, noting that nearly all scripting, directing, camerawork, and executive decisions were made by heterosexual men with male pleasure in mind. Later the gaze-as-power concept was applied more broadly to depictions of all kinds in which a viewer assumes a privileged position. The importance of gaze theory lay in the way it linked vision and representation to systems of control, coercion, and domination of subordinate groups. Everything about exam proctoring and anti-plagiarism software fits this definition, often rationalized in a language of “security” and “integrity.”
[i] Dian Schaffhauser, “Instructors Believe Students More Likely to Cheat when Class is Online,” Campus Technology (Aug. 4, 2020) https://campustechnology.com/articles/2020/08/04/instructors-believe-students-more-likely-to-cheat-when-class-is-online.aspx (accessed Jul. 21, 2021).
[ii] Elizabeth Redden, “Professor Accused of Saying ‘All Chinese Students Cheat’ Resigns,” Inside Higher Ed (Mar. 13, 2019) https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2019/03/13/professor-accused-saying-all-chinese-students-cheat-resigns (accessed Jul. 20, 2021).
[iii] “Cheating in Online Education: Myth vs. Reality,” Online Education (2021) https://www.onlineeducation.com/features/cheating-in-online-education (accessed Jul. 21, 2021).
[iv] Ray Schroeder, “Academic Cheating: Are We Asking the Right Questions?” Inside Higher Ed (Jul. 14, 2021) https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/online-trending-now/academic-cheating-are-we-asking-right-questions (accessed Jul. 23, 2021).
[vi] Shea Shauger, in Jesse Stommel, Chris Friend, and Sean Michael Morris, eds., Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection (Washington, D.C: Hybrid Pedagogy, 2021) p. 53.
[vii] “Racial Justice and Standardized Educational Testing,” Fair Test: National Center for Fair and Open Testing (n.d.) https://fairtest.org/sites/default/files/racial_justice_and_testing_12-10.pdf (accessed Jul. 27, 2021).
[viii] John Poulsen and Kurtis Hews, “Standardized Testing: Fair or Not?” University of Lethbridge (2021) https://www.ulethbridge.ca/teachingcentre/standardized-testing-fair-or-not (accessed Jul. 31, 2021).
[ix] Julie R. Posselt and Sarah Ketchen Lipson, “Competition, Anxiety, and Depression in the College Classroom,” Journal of College Student Development 57: 8 (Nov. 2016) pp. 973-989.
[x] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) trans. Myra Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1970).
[xi] “About Plagiarism,” Copyscape (2021) https://www.copyscape.com/plagiarism.php (accessed Jul. 27, 2021).
[xii] “Plagiarism Detection for Education,” Unicheck, (2021) Unicheck (accessed Jul. 27, 2021); “Empower Students to Do Their Best, Original Work,” Turnitin (2021) https://www.turnitin.com/php (accessed Jul. 27, 2021).
[xiii] “FAQ: Turnitin for Students,” BUE Student Guide (2020) https://bue.libguides.com/Turnitin2_Students/ContactTurnitinAdministrators (accessed Jul. 23, 2021).
[xiv] Critical Digital Pedagogy. p.29.
[xv] Critical Digital Pedagogy, p. 35.
[xvi] Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
[xvii] Barry Glassner, “Narrative Techniques of Fear Mongering,” Social Research 71, no. 4 (Winter 2004) p. 820.
[xviii] Brian MacIntosh and Annabelle Phillips, “Understanding the Demonized Generation,” Criminal Justice Matters, 83:1 (2011) p.28
[xx] Henry A. Giroux, “Schools as Punishing Factories: The Handcuffing of Public Education,” Truthout (Aug. 6, 2015) https://truthout.org/articles/schools-as-punishing-factories-the-handcuffing-of-public-education/ (accessed Jul 22, 2021).
[xxiii] Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (New York: Oxford, 2009).