Panopticism in the Classroom

by Allen Kempton 

Technology for Technologies Sake?

Calls have been made to integrate technology into the classroom by both academics and students. As a result, many classrooms have been hastily equipped with sometimes faulty equipment that nobody can use, or even want to learn how to use, such as SMARTBoards. Almost every room in my school is equipped with this board, yet it is not utilized to its fullest extent or potential, if used at all. Most professors and students use it as a projector screen. This kind of defeats the purpose of such technology in the class room.

However, assuming technology can and will be fully integrated into the academic learning environment, there are some things that need to be critiqued and explored. For example, how can an instructor facilitate a class that is technologically dependent? How is it accomplished? How can productive discipline with technology be created? Arguably, technology provides more distractions than one can possibly imagine in a classroom. Countless times I have seen students playing games, watching videos, talking with friends, etc, during class hours. How can we negotiate a discipline amongst students without being too intrusive? This is difficult subject to address, but it is well worth probing.

The Panopticon

Foucault’s model of the disciplinary society is the concept I will use for this investigation into the intersections between tech and teaching. The Panopticon, the architecture theorized by Jeremy Bentham, serves as a basis for the disciplinary society. In essence, the Panopticon is a structure that allows for maximum supervision, technically all-seeing, with minimal effort. The original idea was a central guard tower in a prison, where the guards could see all the prisoners at any given time, but the prisoners could not see the guards. It was always unverifiable whether or not guards were actually watching, but the prisoners had to act as if someone was watching them at all time, creating discipline. Foucault expanded the idea to work at the level of general society, termed “panopticism.” The description of how this is accomplished is deep and intricate, but for the sake of this discussion we can summarize by suggesting that society is deeply surveilled in ways we would not think possible at this moment. Our actions are monitored, our data is collected, signs of surveillance are everywhere, and somewhere all this data is analyzed and acted upon. Here, panopticism’s effect of discipline is realized. A coercive power that pushes people into doing things, to act in certain ways, and orient to the very idea that we are constantly being scrutinized and judged. With this, we can head back to the integration of technology in the classroom. Let’s stick with the classroom for now, because the effect of panopticism on publicly available digital databases is too deep for this first exploratory post.

Technology in the academic environment is also monitored to some degree. A panoptic effect, insofar as it is unverifiable by many. Indeed, most students I know were shocked to learn that instructors have the ability to monitor students’ actions to some degree on Blackboard. Recently I learned school e-mails are monitored as well. Some tech classes use classroom management software that allows the administrator or instructor to view what is happening on any given screen in the classroom, provided the computers are hooked up to the same system. In programs like Khan’s Academy, stats are collected to see where focus is needed most. Beyond the educative technologies, we are observed by video surveillance cameras in classrooms as well. Most of the time this is done without the knowledge, much less consent, of the students, although it is not like we are given a choice. Increasing awareness of the pervasiveness of marketeering in programs is causing some degree of concern among instructors (as seen with the advertisements in BlackBoard 9 - read our scathing critique of Blackboard here), and causing some people to automatically assume they are being observed while operating technology.

Although we are aware of some degree of observation, this does not mean it is approved. Often we are forced into submission: get watched or don’t get the program! In a conspiracy theorist sort of way, the possibilities of abuse of panopticism in school systems is terrifying. In America, there was a report of a student being penalized for an incident on a school supplied computer while at home; if I recall correctly, it was “inappropriate use,” but the point is that the principal could view what the student was viewing at any given moment. Schools like UOIT (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) supply school computers; do we know all the programs within them? Not likely. If current surveillance technologies in classrooms right now are an indication of anything, it is not unreasonable to predict that a more fully integrated academic environment will be even more observed. The very issue of observation must be addressed.

This point of view seems overwhelmingly negative; for the most part, this is true. However, as Foucault points out, observation can be utilized to increase efficiency. Technology provides the number one distraction because people are convinced they can get away with it. An integrated system that allows peers to see what the other is doing could possibly be an optimal solution. With an integrated system, people should be able to see who is slacking on the work at hand. In an academic space, people who are consciously neglecting their task should feel compelled to get back to work if all eyes of the classroom are on them. If all the members of the classroom have the ability to observe, this protects against a centralized, unverified power. People tend to be very self-aware of their actions on a computer if they are being watched, and so the possibility for increased focus on the task at hand is much greater. By increasing focus, more productive discourse and analysis can be made on whatever the given assignment is. Collective creativity can also produce better works, and can facilitate some interesting interaction.

A major factor in the distraction of students I believe is an unwillingness to engage in discourse with each other. A panoptic sort of idea where everybody communicates with each other can help solve boredom. Social media allows us to get to know each other better, as it acts as a disciplined partition in a sense, that we display who we are. If we have a built-in forum for students to learn about each other in the classroom, there is greater opportunity for people to get to know each other, and thus make it easier to talk to each other. Society today is very good at isolating people, but it does not have to be this way. An integrated social media forum in the classroom keeps the data relatively private, if handled appropriately, and is far more effective than the little ice-breakers some professors do, as it lasts longer and enables broader communication. Discussion where people are comfortable with each other tends to produce the best results, as people are not so afraid to state contradictory views. Technology with its panoptic attributes can help achieve this.

Implementation is the key. Panopticism in the academic environment can be either a negative or positive tool, and must be recognized as such. It must not be used as a mechanism of power; it must be able to be used and understood by all participants. One must look at surveillance technologies in a classroom beyond something as simple deterrence, and understand the true effect of the power of mind over mind. Foucault suggested that the effect of panopticism as an educative device can be remarkably effective, as with work ethics. Let us not forget the use of visibility beyond simple definitions of discipline.

2 thoughts on “Panopticism in the Classroom

  1. Pingback: Technological Rationality and You | Digital Communitas

  2. Pingback: The Digital Classroom: Catering to Idealism | Digital Communitas

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