Digital Tensions: Surveillance Culture ↔ Student Agency | Julie King | 8 Min Read

This year of learning in a pandemic has seen new devices and other hardware brought to the schoolhouse, new learning platforms and applications provided to support instruction, and, for many students, new types of engagement with curriculum and classmates. The devices and applications intended to manage students’ learning experience bring a surveillance stance that exists in uncomfortable tension with the environment needed for students’ exploration, creativity, and digital literacy and fluency to grow. 

In his book, Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, author Scott Galloway shares thoughts on the ways the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the pace of change in several fields — including education. For schools leading hybrid learning this year, an entire industry swiftly evolved to provide swiveling iPad stands, 360-degree classroom webcams that respond to students’ voices, and other unique audio and video set-ups for this unique moment in educational time. In addition to a hardware boom, the rapid pivot from face-to-face to remote learning necessitated by the arrival of COVID-19 prompted a rapid rise in the use of Zoom, Nearpod, Seesaw, and dozens of other applications. As educators’ familiarity with technology platforms increased, so did their questions about the management of these apps and the devices with which students were (and many, still are) learning. 

“How can we monitor students’ screens during the day?”

“How can we keep students from cheating on finals?” 

“How can we keep students from playing online games during the school day?”

“What if remote learners are using smartphones at home during class?”

Learning mediated by screens creates freedom of access, expression, and exploration that simultaneously challenges many educators’ approaches to teaching. Even in the classroom, when learning is happening online, the vast current of digital activity is often unheard and unseen — fundamentally different from the analog assignments and group discussions that can be moderated by a teacher. It is only natural that a teacher’s first response to students’ freedom of access online is to wonder how it might be managed safely and productively. It has long been the responsibility of educators to create and maintain positive learning environments, and for technologists to create spaces free of inappropriate and harmful content. However, the need to surveil and manage students’ online activity reflects a lack of trust that students have the ability to identify — and will refrain from accessing — inappropriate content. 

While there is never a justification for children…

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Julie King

Julie King is the Director of Educational Technology at The Buckley School in New York City. She earned an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership through the University of Pennsylvania’s Mid-Career program, co-founded a Students-as-Makers Conference, and has served in literacy and technology leadership roles in independent schools for the past 15 years. Julie’s areas of focus include designing learning experiences that weave technology, literacy, and citizenship and encouraging students to be digital creators and storytellers.