I once balked when people surmised the creation of a police state.
Now, I grimace because I know a stark truth: At VCU, there is no escape from the eye of authority, or rather, its retroactive tracking of you.
In addition to the high-definition cameras placed strategically around our campus in an earnest effort to survey crimes when they occur (as opposed to creating a healthy environment that discourages crime without the threat of constant surveillance), classrooms in the new Academic Learning Commons and School of Social Work have been outfitted with adjustable audience cameras.
Ostensibly, the cameras are in place for professors to monitor whether students are checking social networking sites instead of paying attention to their lecture. It is not, however, instructor use that we should be concerned about. Any professor worth their degree shouldn’t care if an overly confident freshman prefers to live tweet their lecture about Middle Eastern politics.
Our concern should be greater: Is this, as the audience cameras placement in our newest classroom building might suggest, the new state of the classroom, with the State casually perusing your screen?
This innovation in passive privacy violation is both your tax and tuition dollars being used against you in your own classroom. As someone who has personally tested the audience cameras, I can verify that they are not invasive enough to make out detailed information from your screen. However, that’s not to say they cannot be readily upgraded and outfitted to do so. Moreover, they exist in conjunction with another monitor, allowing instructors to simultaneously teach material and check on students.
There are a few instances where having a camera in the classroom is a defensible idea: in case of an emergency or in order to re-distribute the lecture onto a video or online platform. Even in those instances, there are a number of legal barriers to address, including the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the state from conducting unreasonable searches or seizures, and Virginia’s open-record laws, which would leave images recorded via surveillance cameras subject to disclosure to the public through the Freedom of Information Act, thereby potentially violating a third legal barrier, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Classrooms are sacred places for students, places where we can make mistakes and confessions, and have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The thought that anyone remotely familiar with a classroom would be willing to violate that privacy is nearly unconscionable. Such an action would make students feel more like prisoners or mere subjects to be observed, rather than like the individuals that they are; once we embark on this path, we will stop being a university and instead become a large, institutional experiment.
Instead of enabling professors to subtly spy on their students, the university ought to give instructors the resources they need to make their material more engaging, accessible and understandable for students. If that goal is being met and students are still being comparatively successful, then why would classroom cameras be necessary? Are students not entitled to the right of self-determination? Are students not free to make costly mistakes like not paying attention to lectures? Isn’t that part of the growth and maturation of every student?
If professors genuinely have a problem with students not paying attention in class, the solution is simple and any professor who is serious about electronic distractions has already done this: Tell students there is a zero tolerance policy for use of electronics during class.
Not every high-tech, 21st century problem needs as high-tech, 21st century solution.