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 accessing harmful or hateful material, outright blocking of all content deemed even just distracting removes the opportunity for a meaningful conversation between adults and students. For example, many schools block all games on student devices — a game of virtual whack-a-mole. Students are talented at finding ways to access games and, when asked about it, have shared with me that sometimes they just need a “brain break” between rigorous classes or as a relief during a stressful day. As a doctoral student, I remember clearly needing regular “brain breaks” from writing. For me, it may have been doing the Spelling Bee or checking my Instagram feed, but I understand how students feel. The need for constant surveillance assumes students lack the self-discipline to return to a task, the information literacy skills necessary to understand and use information, and the ability to create, curate, and manage their digital lives and learning on their own. That may be the case for a moment in time, but is this not part of an educators’ charge — to teach, lead, rather than close a door to learning what is, especially today, a critical set of skills?

If surveillance and control of students’ digital activities sit at one end of a philosophical spectrum, an educator’s mindset based on cultivating student agency in digital learning sits at the other. The need for information literacy instruction is critical — even more so as the ways information is created, shared, and consumed evolve at an increasingly rapid pace. As important as it is for students to be literate in navigating digital communities and content, agency (understood here as a sense of empowerment and the idea that students’ actions can effect positive change) should be viewed as a foundational element of the curriculum. Information literacy learning infused with a sense of agency can be framed around the concept of narratives; naming, following, and engaging with the narratives students encounter in digital spaces.

In a recent post, host of Cult of Pedagogy Jennifer Gonzelez talks with Starr Sackstein about co-constructing success criteria with students. When teachers design instruction, the learning objectives and criteria for assessment are often determined by the teacher alone, a veritable black box of lesson planning into which students rarely have a window. Sharing the vocabulary around success and demonstrating learning with students and being transparent about the possible strategies for their developing understanding can create a sense of relevance and meaning in learning. This approach could be adapted to help find a balance between surveillance and agency in instructional environments. Engaging students as partners in designing their digital cultures through the lens of narratives turns the tables on the surveillance mindset and creates possibilities for authentic, creative, and safe spaces for students to learn. 


Connecting the idea of narratives as students experience them in traditional approaches to instruction with students’ own digital lives outside of school can increase the sense of relevance for their learning. Whether they gather information from Reddit, Instagram, Discord, YouTube, or any digital platforms, students are being offered narratives. A friend’s Instagram or Snapchat story may document one perspective on an event or experience. A thread in a Reddit forum becomes a narrative on the given topic. Many students are already quite aware of corporate influence in their outside-of-school digital lives. From sponsored professional gaming teams to companies’ use of influencers to hawk their products, students are exposed to authentic and sponsored narratives every day. How are we, as educators, helping them learn to see and name a narrative; considering the point of view being offered, the author’s perspective and motivation for creating their story?

Considering the context for narratives is a critical information literacy skill. Just as we may ask learners to consider the setting for a story or historical context for world events, we can provide opportunities for them to examine the context for digital media. Students might consider questions such as: How does one friend’s curation of images create a story that might be different from another friend’s story following the same event? Do video game players communicate with other players in the game in different ways? Is there a particular historical or cultural context influencing the up or down voting of a post on Reddit? 


The algorithms driving content on many digital platforms create a narrative based on user data. The reading application, Epic, has taken algorithmic narratives to a new level during the pandemic, leveraging students’ reading histories to literally create the narratives that will be offered next — a kind of surveillance that poses as responding to readers’ interests but ultimately benefits the platform itself.  Biases can be built into the algorithms themselves, as powerfully illustrated in the film Coded Bias. When algorithms are designed to reinforce existing interests or understandings, biases and misinformation can also be reinforced. This not only creates an ever-narrowing digital worldview but also removes opportunities for students to explore and discover new interests, perspectives, and ideas. YouTube rabbit holes intentionally create captivating narratives to keep the interest of viewers, reflective of many digital platforms’ attention economy model. Stories follow stories on Instagram, creating a larger narrative about the creator and the world they live in. Cultivating an awareness of the algorithmic influence behind narratives and the ways narratives evolve will help students adopt a stance of agency; preparing students to thoughtfully and effectively engage with narratives being offered to them. To consider the following narratives, students might ask questions such as: How do social media accounts’ narratives change over time? How do the videos YouTube suggests next for a viewer evolve based on the other content users engage with? 


Naming, framing, and following narratives prepares students to bring their own perspectives and thoughts in a meaningful dialogue with others and create narratives of their own, asking “Who am I in this space? …in the context of my community?” Their stories begin to flow; narratives of their lives, their passions, and imaginations. Students’ narratives can begin to weave with the stories of the people and ideas around them, creating opportunities for connection and change. Author and educator Henry Jenkins shares a compelling and hopeful vision of youth as agents of change in the digital age. When students understand how narratives are created, framed, and evolve, and see themselves as creators of their own narratives, their sense of agency as literate citizens of a digital world can take flight.

Hopefully, though, though pandemic learning days are coming to a close, the conversation around learning mediated by screens is far from over. New York City’s public schools have already announced an end to snow days since learning can be moved online on any given day, and the opportunities — along with challenges — presented by remote learning will continue to evolve. One aspect of remote and hybrid learning educators can continue to consider is the role surveillance plays in digital learning environments. Though many students will return to in-person classrooms in the fall, it is unlikely that this year’s growth in technology use will roll back to pre-pandemic days. The devices and apps are here to stay in new ways. Engaging students in creating digital cultures through a narrative-based, media agency framework is an opportunity to pull back from what feels like necessary surveillance of their time online and, perhaps, an opportunity to stoke the fires of creativity, agency, and productive discourse in our classrooms and beyond. 


Coded Bias film

Galloway, Scott (2020) Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, Penguin Random House, NY.

Gonzalez, Jennifer Cult of Pedagogy

Jenkins, Henry, et al. (2016)  By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, NYU Press, NY. 

Simon, H. A. (1994). The bottleneck of attention: Connecting thought with motivation. In W. D. Spaulding (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation, Vol. 41. Integrative views of motivation, cognition, and emotion (p. 1–21). University of Nebraska Press.

Wall Street Journal Epic article

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.

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