The Digital Classroom: Catering to Idealism

One more theorist inspired post from me, once more applying ideas towards technological learning environments. This time I will examine the issue from a perspective inspired by Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard was a French theorist, writing in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st. He covered a broad range of ideas, but some of his core themes were that of simulations, consumerism, media, technology, and signs/symbolism. His bibliography is quite lengthy, and since I can only include so much, this article will use some ideas found in The System of Objects, Simulacra and Simulation, and The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

Again, I must note in advance, this post will seem very non-supportive of technology in the classroom, but I want to again note that this is not my position, rather that this should provoke thought about the origins of said technology, and the political/economical/ideological motives behind equipping classrooms with technology. By understanding these underlying themes, we can have a fuller understanding of the true meanings and ramifications of technology in the classroom. It may be a harsh reality to face and some may rail against such claims, but technology in the classroom does in fact have many downsides to it, most of which are the fault of said ideological influences.

As one of the arguments for supporting digitized classrooms, technology is slated to combat boredom, to cater to new ways of learning, and create new methods of teaching. However, I want to point out the most obvious fact: teaching with technology is still teaching. It is not replacing teaching or teachers, and thus will become subject to the same miseries, or even worse distractions, than traditional methods eventually. Digital interfaces in a classroom hold the attention of younger generations and students because they are a novelty. A techno-generation of students will view digitally enhanced classrooms much in the same way rebellious children today view the traditional methods. It is a circular process. The idea of learning and the attitudes towards that is what needs to be changed to allow the full effects of technological enhancements in the classroom to be felt. We are deluding ourselves into believing that technology will save the classroom, or that the fundamentals will somehow be different and more effective. Not that this is naivety, on the contrary, that is the very goal of technology, which allows it to flourish and invade our body. But we must be suspicious.

In the mad rush to equip schools with technology, the reduction of technology to merely a sign is evident. I do not mean to deprive digital interfaces of their ability to fundamentally change the classroom, but the symbolism of a digital classroom is stronger, and arguably more important. This movement is a modernization, to pull into the 21st century one of the oldest social environments. Digital interfaces serve as a sign of modernity, of a technologically savvy and triumphant society. Traditional methodologies are not seen as rational, nor 100 percent efficient; there is always a piece of technological equipment that can be created to achieve this, though always within limits imposed by dominant social structure. In short, technologically advanced classrooms serves to further legitimize our technocratic society. It is more the idea of an advanced classroom that is appealing to many than the practical application of it. The actual implementation is a nothing more or less than a worthy goal of society, though successful integration would be a “token” of power.

Referencing back again to my first post about surveillance and data collection, we come to a concept Baudrillard detailed in Simulacra and Simulation. He believed that we bring the sacred objects in life into a scientific order, in an effort to control them. He gave the example of museums effectively “killing” Egyptian mummified corpses; that we write our own ethnographies. The world has become a museum; everything is an exhibit. Though this work was written in 1981, it has been amplified to the infinite degree by the internet today. Social media is a prime example; we build our own exhibits for ourselves, and prostitute our images. Our data is collected, and advertisers have their own museums about us, the consumer, and cater back to us so we can continue to build on our own exhibit. In a similar way, this works in the classroom as well, if the technology is set up in such a way. The statistics of how well we perform in certain areas lead to an exhibit of our academic profile and abilities. We have seen how advertisers have invaded digital academic tools such as Blackboard; theoretically they could advertise to the student particular devices or programs that best suit their academic abilities or deficiencies. Additionally, schools or programs that require applications can see a deeper/rational/synthesized evaluation of a student, or even a host of students, through simple things like data collection and analysis. An exhibit of a student or classroom can be quite revealing. Nothing is private, and everything is oriented towards efficiency and economical benefits. Schools have a vested interest in having top performing students, advertisers make money from the data, and other companies make money from people purchasing the programs. Although this idea of an exhibit of the student may seem like a logical step, do exhibits and statistics always demonstrate the potential or true abilities of a student? As Baudrillard suggests, there is more and more information, but less and less meaning.

This idea of the exhibit of the student somewhat leads into the idea that people believe technology adapts to them. Any little learning deficiency, interest, etc, is seen as an individualization, personalization, a focus on them. This is wrong: everything is coded, predicted, anticipated, and such “adaptations” are designed to dupe you into believing technology is working for you. Any “adaptation” is an orientation to a paying consumer, or creation of adaptive ideas for profit in patents. Problem with math? Try this new teaching program! I see you like science; try this new data collection program! Perhaps if a new development is made requiring non-existent technologies, it could be an adaptation, though it is not an adaptation for the sake of the person, it is for the sake of filling another gap for profit. Point is, technology is not working, or doing the work, for you. If we have digital interfaces in the classroom as an example, they cannot “work” unless we utilize them. It is what WE do that matters. We manipulate it, and it does what it is told. Ultimately it is the programmers and corporations YOU are working for, the opposite of what we believe technology is doing. Every quirk has a niche and a price; there’s an app for that.Governments and companies both are pushing for this equipment, as it benefits both of them. Given the recent revelations of widespread data being monitored by government agencies, it can be debated whether or not this is actually in the student’s best interest.

Relating to this, technology opposes progress just as much as it promotes advancements. Advancing too far, too fast will kill it; it is only logical that it organizes itself against too fast of progress. It is in its best interest to go slow, and “adapt” to situations that come up instead of preventing or pre-empting them. This is economic play. Baudrillard discussed at length in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place how speculators make money of things that never really happen, that do not catch on, take off, what have you. The same effect is being applied here. Economic powers are speculating the worth of technologically enhanced classrooms, and speculating off the students. Why else would companies be interested in equipping schools with tablets, e-readers, computers, and so on? Advertising, media, promotion, money.

Baudrillard suggested objects and technology grow like an organism; it evolves, it has waste, it has obsolescence. Technology, of course, is the exact same. Every year we see it, the new Apple products and the mad rush to purchase these expensive devices that undergo minor changes that are often aesthetic only in nature, a planned obsolescence designed to suck money out of the masses. In the classroom, this is the greatest danger of technology. It is expensive, and cannot be replaced at the consistent rate of growth it is experiencing. There will always be a school that is out of date, and then the point of digitally enhanced classrooms is lost, as methods become obsolete as fast as the technology. Again, economics are at play. We must also deal with the waste; where does all this go? The amount of waste technology produces is astounding, and is only growing.

There is another problem, regarding specificity of technology. Again, I noted in my first post that many instructors are incapable of fixing problems with the rudimentary technology in the classrooms. Baudrillard noted the increasing specialization in “gizmos” and technology in general. This is part of the plan; there are jobs out there for people who can fix these problems, so the people who really need to know (instructors) are not taught. Here is an example, though it is not exactly about learning with digital interfaces, but it paints the general picture. In my final year of high school, all of the clocks broke and everything fell out of time. All the buzzers were 8 minutes behind, and not a single clock in the school was correct. It remained this way for quite some time because apparently there was only ONE PERSON in the entire municipality that was licensed and trained (aka entitled) to fix the clocks. Great. In terms of actual classes, why do students have to wait for IT help to get the lesson going? It would be more much efficient if the instructors knew how to work these things, and then both students and instructors would not lose out on 10-15 minutes of class every week.

It boils down to this: money. Baudrillard asserted that the cultural mosaic does not exist, rather there is only one “culture,” and this one is the capitalist centralization of value. Everything can be given a price, and now that education and instructors are increasingly under the economic scope, economics are extraordinarily important, especially given the enormous focus on economics today. This centralized tendency to reduce everything to monetary value is extraordinarily demeaning, and is certainly a backwards progression. Technological advances in the classrooms are suffering from this, and as noted in this post and my last one, it is solely due to money, presumably greed.

There is a great technocracy at play here. It is evident in all of the above issues. It is also evident in the prevailing attitude about technology: if you do not have it, are not up to date, or non-proficient with it, you are socially ridiculed. Although it is not the social “castration” Baudrillard suggested happened to those who lost their driver’s licence, the principle is still applicable. It is an expectation of people today, an expectation that everybody has cell phones, social media accounts, mp3 players, and so on. Technology is not to be halted; those who have not come under technology are backwards, morally and socially. This idea allows it flourish, and continuously creates pretexts for development, pointless or not. This is one reason why we consider the traditional classroom model out of date, and legitimizes the push for digital enhancements.

The final idea I will explore about technologically advanced classrooms is that of a social paralysis. Baudrillard suggested technology does not actually create communication; I believe this to be a result of given historical time-frames (1968), and I will say technology DOES in fact create communication, but a non-standard type or form of communication. It cannot be denied that objects such as Smart phones or other media platforms are killing true human interaction and relationships. It may seem contradictory: does social media not count as human interaction or relationships? Not in my mind. Social media deludes people into believing this, but subtly we must be aware that we do not really have 900+ friends. It is merely an exhibit; social media does not give us the opportunity to learn how engage our peers in the flesh, and digital interfaces in the classroom pose the same threat. I feel that speaking with colleagues and engaging in open dialogue in seminar settings allows the best ideas to be birthed and grow. Technology cannot, and should not, be allowed to isolate students from not only themselves, but from the instructor. If indeed technology does not create or foster standard communication, this is what it should (at least in part) facilitate.

To wrap things up and keep it short, it is suffice to say that we need to really take a step back and look at digitally enhanced classrooms as something more than an educative tool. It was quoted in The System of Objects that “there is something morally wrong about an object whose exact purpose is not entirely known.” Technology in the classrooms is this. Very few people know every line of code that goes into these programs, the underlying motives, etc, for this equipment. It is a consumption of technology, and Baudrillard left us with an excellent definition of consumption: “an activity consisting of the systematic manipulation of signs.” Technology is the sign, and there is so much at stake for all parties that everybody wants their piece of the pie, economically, politically, and so on. By considering some of the more sinister aspects of technology, and figuring out how to mitigate them as best as possible while being as open as possible, we can make progress in this endeavour.

Technological Rationality and You

The development of a highly technological academic learning environment is at once both exciting and intriguing. This exploratory post will use ideas founded within Herbert Marcuse’s work, drawing ideas in particular from One-Dimensional Man. Although it was published in 1964 and written with particular economic and cultural frameworks in mind, many of the ideas presented are still relevant to today’s world, some of which are increasing in relevance, rather than declining, possibly indicating negative or backward trends in society as a whole. This post will also examine the use of technology in the classroom, as well as the relationship of technology and the typical assignments.

A main theme in One-Dimensional Man is an idea of one-dimensional thought. It is a self-imposed limitation on freethinking, where people follow prescribed patterns of thought, are indoctrinated into specific ways of thinking, and a strong trust in operationalized definitions. We follow the definitions too closely, and this prevents a “far reaching” change in thought. People are indoctrinated in a manner that consumes the entire individual, rather than just being a set of teachings for example. Technology and mass production have enabled this method of total indoctrination.

In a broader sense of the idea of one-dimensional thought, we can look at increased issues of accessibility of knowledge. Wikipedia, although vastly improved from its previous states, presents a point in fact of the dangers of open-access material; it shows us how a database can become something of a default knowledge base people go to, and can become regarded as some sort of dogma. Due to the ease of accessibility and ease of editing, I believe this is producing what Marcuse called a self-limitation in thought. Studies have linked changing brain patterns when it comes to deciding where to find data, with the more-open internet, particularly Google, becoming a default search base instead of asking others knowledgeable in the subject, doing some hard-copy research, or accessing databanks/search engines such as EBSCOhost. I believe this contributes to a self-limitation of thought; we are thinking less and less for ourselves, instead quickly turning to search engines to see what other people think, and rely on that rather than getting multiple opinions or data; our resourcefulness has decreased. The long-term impact of self-limitation of thought is quite negative, but in the learning environment there is a two-fold effect that has to be recognized.

First is a de-skilling of learning capabilities. Many students today are lacking in understanding how to use resources, and how to really pull information from academic work. Students tend to search first, and think later. There is also the old argument of the internet creating a text dialect, a horrid shorthand of English. Digital tools such as spell-check also allow students to be lazier, although this is debatable since many students still somehow manage hand in assignments riddled with errors. Second, is the erosion of academic freedom, meaning students are not truly learning, they are being dictated to, and being specifically formed to take their place in the system. Although this is a granted and obvious effect, it is often not recognized as such because, as Marcuse points out, the system does a wonderful job of hiding this purpose within it. The lack of resourcefulness and tendencies to take information at face value without giving it deeper thought or reading supporting documents creates a flawed “learning” environment. Although this is not as bad at the post-secondary level, anything with a “curriculum” or departments/instructors that are somewhat censored are doing a disservice to academic growth.

As I noted in my previous post, there have been major calls to integrate technology in the modern classrooms of the twenty-first-century. Classrooms have been slow to adopt computerized methods of teaching for a variety of reasons, including economic factors, methodology conflicts, and general access. However, there has recently been a push to equip the academic environment with technology; again, as I noted earlier, what is the point if the technology is not used properly, faulty, or simply not effective? Marcuse made note of the “self-validating hypotheses” being “repeated hypnotically” in society, and the push to integrate technology is exactly this. We constantly hear that digital interfaces will enhance the learning environment, and it is taken for granted that this is the case. However, the consequences are being overlooked in favour of accelerated mobilization. We have heard the adverse effects on health from wireless internet in some schools, yet they decide to press on with it. The extremely rapid obsolesce rate of technology does nothing to help either. What good is it to implement a series of technological marvels if they will be outdated in a relatively short span of time? This planned obsolesce is nothing more than greed, and leads to the current problem of recycling and waste that is being experienced by the digital world.

One of the larger themes in One-Dimensional Man is the idea of a “technological rationality.” Marcuse suggested that everything in society is being operationalized, rationalized, and brought into a scientific order. However, technological rationality works to protect dominate social structures at all times. It contributes to the creation of and sustains a monoculture, a “rational” culture, where everything is accounted for, specifically defined, and freethinking is limited and discouraged. This is where our needs are defined, and our drive towards those needs created, whether or not they are Marcuse’s “true or false” needs. Everything is confined within these figurative boundaries of the monoculture. One-dimensional thought is created by this structure as well.

A major issue with technological rationality is that it treats everything equally, that any idea or object is to be steamrolled and absorbed into the whole by totally disregarding any inequalities or differences. This is what is prevailing in the bid to equip schools with digital learning interfaces. It is often assumed that all kids these days are brought up with modern technology, or that it is “natural” to them. This is a sweeping generalization. There are often considerable gaps when it comes to access of technology, especially if we consider rural areas. This assumption also takes for granted that parents allow children to have extensive use of computers at home, or mobile technology, and more importantly assumes that the economic capital for constantly up-to-date technology is available. This is not always the case. For example, although many of my peers are quite proficient with technology and love to live connected to it, I was not brought up with it; I did not get internet until 2005 (dial-up on windows 98), and did not have a reasonably decent computer and internet until 2008, at which point I was finishing high school. Living in a suburban area with many working class families, I know many who were not brought up immersed in technology, dislike using it, and dislike seeing much of it used in classrooms. Many of my peers prefer auditory lecture styles, with slideshows being a reference point only.

How will the assignments change? We have seen how technology has created a cycle where people are bound more to work after their work hours are complete. It is possible for the same thing to happen with higher tech classrooms. For example, if the students are equipped with tablets or laptops, are they going to have to do more work outside of class than ever? Marcuse emphasized the new need for continuous, mentally stupefying labour, and wasting time on a laptop or tablet is the perfect fit. On the flip-side, what if people are not equipped with these things, but have no access to them? Way to go, technological rationality.

It is undeniable that there are issues with boredom in the classroom. Classic ways of teaching have been victimized, and it is argued that technology will make it “better.” On its face, this seems like it would be a good thing; a more interactive environment stimulates the student to pay more attention. However, there is an equally arguable point that if the student is simply not interested in the subject matter, the format of delivering the material will not matter. Statistics, taught by lecture, PowerPoint, Prezi, in a computer lab, or by workshop, is still statistics, and thus still likely bores the students. It is an issue of self-discipline; the burden cannot always be laid on the teacher or the methods of teaching. This smacks of the entitled generation, wherein the kids and students of today never seem to be at fault.

If the issue of learning is boredom, how does a technological environment solve the issue? Having access to multiple efficient resources is one thing, but what to do with them? People need to be taught how to use these things, and in turn the lesson once again becomes linear. To solve boredom, one must entertain, and Marcuse suggested “entertainment may be the most effective mode of learning,” given that we can distance ourselves from the entertainment. A digital classroom immerses us in the entertainment. This entertainment idea is dangerous, for it raises the chance of the lessons not being taken seriously, and also demeans the educative environment. Just look at how classes that bring in movies are looked at; easy, not taken seriously at all. Will digital classrooms be looked at in a similar way?

There are research projects currently being conducted that investigate the introduction of social media into the learning environment. How do we view this integration? To me this seems like a way of continuing the “happy consciousness,” that the student must be occupied at all times to make it seem like the system is working just fine. It is a problem maker that simply hides the problems. Is it really boredom, or is it an addiction, not necessarily an addiction to technology, but an addiction to being in contact with people? Perhaps we should be critiquing how traditional constructions of space and interaction have created an atmosphere of isolation, and looking at social media as a way of fulfilling the desire of interaction, since it transcends physical constructions of space. Such a desire is amplified by the fact that society isolates us from each other.

Here we look to Marcuse’s idea of a cultural diffusion. Education, historically, was a marker of class and wealth. It was only a gradual process that enabled the general population to be educated. Lower culture was readily absorbed into the process, and the higher culture aspects were brought down and blended with the lower cultural meanings to create a harmonious and smooth operation. Negative aspects of society are also absorbed into this harmonious whole. The key to the success of this idea is looking to the past, and convincing ourselves that it is better now than it was before.

As such, technology is only being integrated on the terms of dominant social structure. As we have seen here with Blackboard 9, corporate business has a strong interest in integrating technology with academia. Currently, learning with digital media can only be implemented and accomplished if someone stands to profit by it, and the results of learning with these digital tools produces a citizen that is within both societal and corporatist interests. We know corporations pay scientists or scholars to represent a certain angle of a given topic, and regular people to support it. What kind of impact can this have on a database? How can the academic community regulate itself to maintain academic freedom? The third party interests are what need addressing the most. It is essential to construct the most neutral as possible environment for students to learn, so they can think for themselves and choose their own path.

We are constantly looking for ways to do things differently from the past. I always come across self-congratulatory writing about how we have “come so far from our barbaric past,” particularly when I was doing research on mental health and asylums. Needless to say, usually a lot of the references of the barbaric past are changes that have happened within relatively small frameworks of time. It is a delusion of grandeur and egoism. Highly technical academic learning environments will be praised in much the same manner, but they will still suffer from lazy, distracted students, plagiarism, and boredom. They will still suffer from ineffective instructors and poor methodologies. Nevertheless, they will be considered much better than before, and a justification for these new methods will be always found and held onto.

Technological classrooms have the potential to entirely dominate the student. A continuous connection contributes to that absorption of the entire body I mentioned earlier. Marcuse wrote that technology shows us how unfree we actually are. We cannot disconnect from it, and it blinds us from understanding the true causes of our frustrations and oppression. Our data is collected, analyzed, and then we are sold.  The growth of technology is a constant reflection of not just advancements in capabilities in research and development, but also a growing understanding in how to cater to us better by providing a piece of technology for every purpose imaginable. We are not just connected to technology in the class, but we are connected to those who control the technology, the dominant social structure; we are surveilled, analyzed as a statistic, and understood. This is why cultural diffusion is necessary, to hide the domination of the upper strata by infusing our own meanings into technology. In the recesses of our minds, we understand how fully entrapped we are, and escape is extremely difficult, if not impossible. We find some way to justify this, and thus, in the end, we are “better off than before.” Technological classrooms are generated as a “false” need that people orient to as something rational, something worth desiring, even if it is not. This goes back to the whole idea of praising ourselves, and satisfying our “happy conscious,” and believe everything in the system is rational, working, and efficient.

As this has probably been an overwhelmingly cynical read, I must look for the positive. Through the cynicism of Marcuse’s work, he describes the “Great Refusal,” wherein he believed society could change for the better if people took an active part in resisting arbitrative change and thinking for themselves. The same thing applies to integrating digital media to the learning environment. Although it is a possibility, technology in the classroom is not necessarily a doomed idea. If it resists the operationalized, “rational,” standardized approach that is often undertaken by authority, there is a chance that digital interfaces can enhance the academic learning environment, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities. Strong students and teachers can make use of extended classroom dialogue through digital media, update information as it comes out, and developing stronger ideas by encouraging stronger peer-to-peer engagement. Highly interactive interfaces that are controlled and fully understood by both the instructor and the student are something worth striving for. Technology is only what people make of it, especially in academia.

People can claim that using technology has enhanced learning. There can be no doubt that it has had great effects so far. Nevertheless, the gears of progress seem to have stopped, it is stagnate. Tradition and the economics of today are holding technology back. Progress is stalled by greed, by those who wish to profit off new modes of learning. In traditionalist terms, technology has been making learning easier, and Marcuse suggested that we strongly “militate” ourselves against any fundamental changes that make life easier, but take away traditional roles. To move forward there needs to be a break in the old, constrained modes of thinking.

There needs to be a critical evaluation of these plans to integrate technology in a classroom. To substitute one form of classroom boredom to another is entirely pointless; technological teaching can be equally or more ineffective than bad teaching in the current system. Although I believe it can be used effectively if used in very particular manners, it is not the fix that some people hope it is. The student of today is equally a major factor of failing classroom experience as inefficient teaching methods. There needs to be a shift in the way people think, and how change how education is viewed and valued rather than simply patching the problem.

Credit for inspiration and ideas, One-Dimensional Man

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.