Is Learning at Scale Just Another Name for Ubiquitous Surveillance in the Classroom?


Last week, I attended an ACM conference called Learning@Scale. It was the most depressing meeting I've been to in years, both because of what was said and done and because of what wasn't.

According to its blurb:

This conference is intended to promote scientific exchange of interdisciplinary research at the intersection of the learning sciences and computer science. Inspired by the emergence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)…this conference was created by ACM as a…key focal point for the review and presentation of…research on how learning and teaching can change and improve when done at scale.

That sounds cool, and there actually were a lot of interesting talks and posters. You'll have to take my word for that, though, because this conference on massive, open, online courses was none of the above: its proceedings are behind a paywall, and talks were neither recorded nor broadcast. In fact, most were barely tweeted: of the 120 or so people in attendance, only half a dozen tagged anything #las2014.

If that wasn't ironic enough, all the presentations–even the ones about flipped classrooms–were a sage on the stage talking over a slide deck telling us what was in the paper most of us had already skimmed. This had exactly the effect you'd predict: despite the lack of power cords at the tables, more than half of the attendees were checking mail, coding, or catching up on their reading.

On its own, that disconnect between what people were saying and what they were doing wouldn't have won this meeting a gold medal for depressing. What pushed it into first place was what wasn't being talked about. None of the presentations included the word "privacy" in their title; speaker after speaker talked about what we can find out about them by mining their data, but whether we should, and whether people should know who's watching them and how closely, was only touched on occasionally and briefly.

One of the reasons, I think, is that most of the speakers were technologists. The educators I talked to were more concerned about privacy (and pedagogy), but several told me one-to-one that they felt sidelined by their lack of technical knowledge. As a result, most decisions on the ground (or on the web) were being made by people who cared more about the data they might get than about the risks they might create or the rights they might erode.

The educational value of MOOCs is debatable. The fact that they are bringing ubiquitous surveillance into the classroom is not. I'm sure we'll learn things by watching over every student's shoulder every minute of every hour (though as Mark Guzdial keeps reminding us, a lot of the things we'll learn are only new to people who haven't bothered to do a literature search). I'm equally sure that if we continue down the road I saw laid out at this conference, we'll be training children to believe that being watched and recorded every moment of the day is normal. That's not a future I want.