Big Brother Goes to University

I am in a technology-orientated frame of mind at the moment. As I work on research that’s trying to understand the role of social media in the empowerment of citizens in political life, I am learning more than I thought I would about issues that affect me directly in a number of different ways. Yesterday, an article in theguardian asked whether ‘… universities [are] collecting too much information on staff and students’. It looked at the data trails left within university libraries and more recent initiatives to ‘do’ something with all this data, questioning the ethics of doing so – even for the very best of intentions. This article joined up this new preoccupation of mine with a quite old one, the question of how much we should intervene to help students. I was pleased to see the article, it means someone out there is thinking about what technology we’re using and how and asking about the rights and wrongs of it. What was missing for me though, was a wider discussion about what the societal effects are likely to be.

I spent five years or so working as Student Advisor, focused on providing pastoral care for students, helping them with their learning needs, advising on where and when to seek help from qualified professionals on campus, building strong interpersonal relationships and helping students too with their professional development. In that time, I grew to understand the huge range of backgrounds, needs, talents, skills, aspirations and interests that defined our student body. Many faced challenges, whether to do with finance, social skills, health (physical and mental), confidence or family, which prevented them from dedicating themselves to university life in the way they wanted. When I hear people now dividing £9,000 fees by numbers of hours in front of academic staff, I bristle. I am all too well aware of the support services that are now available to students in British universities; think counselling, health, financial advice, disability advice – I could go on – and think also about how much they cost. What I know of each of these kinds of services is that they negotiate a line of responsibility: this is what we can do for you, this is what you must do for yourself. Fail to stay on the right side of that line as a professional and you learn that you can create high levels of dependency very, very quickly.

When it comes to talk about technology and how we use it in education (and other sectors), I lack confidence that we adequately understand where the line should be drawn. Technology is spoken of as enabling – but what are we disabling at the same time? To return to that theguardian article, I personally do not think it should be the job of any institution to monitor how many times a student – an adult, let’s remember, old enough to vote, marry, have children, die for their country – goes in to a library or accesses a course website for the purpose of providing pastoral care. These things they should be able to figure out for themselves, surely?  What I’d like to see are the results of research that focuses on the impact on people of having others constantly monitor them, telling them where their activities fall in respect of the norm (whatever that may be). How, in the medium to long term, does that affect their thinking about their responsibility for their own development? Let me give you an example: I am faced by so many automatic doors these days that I have occasionally absentmindedly found myself standing in front of a door that requires me to do the work, wondering why it is not opening. And another: I once berated a librarian for not reminding me that a book was due back because ordinarily they do.

On these types of occasions, I give myself a good shake and tell myself to shape up. But this kind of enablement is relatively new for me. What is the effect on someone who has grown up with it? What are we shaping people for with all these ‘enabling’ technologies?