Home > Uncategorized > Today’s Collegians are Surveilled 24/7, in Keeping with In Loco Parentis Standards Set By Student’s Parents

Today’s Collegians are Surveilled 24/7, in Keeping with In Loco Parentis Standards Set By Student’s Parents

December 27, 2019

I was initially appalled when I read the headline in Drew Harwell’s Washington Post article that appeared earlier this week. It’s title, “Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands”, led me to wonder why college students were accepting this surveillance… until I reflected on the upbringing of today’s students.

The students entering college today are the first generation to go through their lives being surveilled from cradle to campus. Their parents almost certainly had baby monitors in their rooms and, as part of the post-Columbine generation, likely attended schools with video monitors in the hallways. Upon entering adolescence, their parents purchased cell phones and provided them with phone service, enabling the parents to monitor their every movement and check on every text and phone call and monitor their screen time. In short, in loco parentis- the concept that colleges should keep track of students in the same fashion as parents, is far different in the age of telecommunications than it was when I entered college in the 1960s and when my children entered in the 1980s and 1990s. I was not surprised to read the reaction of one parent who was pleased with the impact of this kind of monitoring:

Some parents, however, wish their children faced even closer supervision. Wes Grandstaff, who said his son, Austin, transformed from a struggling student to college graduate… said the added surveillance was worth it…

He now says he wishes schools would share the data with parents, too. “I just cut you a $30,000 check,” he said, “and I can’t find out if my kid’s going to class or not?”

The article also offers a chilling description of how acceptable this kind of monitoring is to students today and how administrators justify its use based on the results:

This style of surveillance has become just another fact of life for many Americans. A flood of cameras, sensors and microphones, wired to an online backbone, now can measure people’s activity and whereabouts with striking precision, reducing the mess of everyday living into trend lines that companies promise to help optimize.

Americans say in surveys they accept the technology’s encroachment because it often feels like something else: a trade-off of future worries for the immediacy of convenience, comfort and ease. If a tracking system can make students be better, one college adviser said, isn’t that a good thing?

As a parent who did not have a baby monitor, I can appreciate the “convenience, comfort and ease” that such a device offers. It would have saved many trips up and down stairs to see if my daughter was really taking a nap and many nights of shuttling between our bedroom and hers when she was fighting a childhood illness. And as a high school disciplinarian in the late 1970s I would have appreciated the ability to remotely monitor distant hallways and to track students who were wandering off campus instead of attending class. But as a parent and school administrator, I have some misgivings about the overreach of technology, especially when it is being used to classify students and predict misbehavior as described in the article:

A classifier algorithm divides the student body into peer groups — “full-time freshmen,” say, or “commuter students” — and the system then compares each student to “normal” behavior, as defined by their peers. It also generates a “risk score” for students based around factors such as how much time they spent in community centers or at the gym.

The students who deviate from those day-to-day campus rhythms are flagged for anomalies, and the company then alerts school officials in case they want to pursue real-world intervention.

And what might that intervention looks like? In one case cited in the article, the university sent an adviser to knock on the student’s door. On one level, that kind of intercession seems invasive. Yet if the gathered data suggests the student is suicidal or, worse, contemplating and capable of carrying out some kind of shooting the institution would be faulted if it failed to act. This kind of conundrum contributes to the mixed responses of students, a response that is ultimately fatalistic given the ceaseless “advancement” of technology:

Students disagree on whether the campus-tracking systems are a breach of privacy, and some argue they have nothing to hide. But one feeling is almost universally shared, according to interviews with more than a dozen students and faculty members: that the technology is becoming ubiquitous, and that the people being monitored — their peers, and themselves — can’t really do anything about it.

But some administrators and students are rightfully concerned. Here’s the reaction of a disaffected administrator:

“It embodies a very cynical view of education — that it’s something we need to enforce on students, almost against their will,” said Erin Rose Glass, a digital scholarship librarian at the University of California San Diego. “We’re reinforcing this sense of powerlessness … when we could be asking harder questions, like: Why are we creating institutions where students don’t want to show up?”

And here’s a disenchanted student’s reaction:

“We’re adults. Do we really need to be tracked?” said Robby Pfeifer, a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, which recently began logging the attendance of students connected to the campus’ WiFi network. “Why is this necessary? How does this benefit us? … And is it just going to keep progressing until we’re micromanaged every second of the day?

Mr. Harwell does an admirable job of providing a balanced perspective on this difficult issue, his closing paragraphs reveal the paradoxical perspective on the issue of 24/7 surveillance:

Joanna Grama, an information-security consultant and higher-education specialist who has advised the Department of Homeland Security on data privacy, said she doubted most students knew they were signing up for long-term monitoring when they clicked to connect to the campus WiFi.

She said she worries about school-performance data being used as part of a “cradle-to-grave profile” trailing students as they graduate and pursue their careers. She also questions how all this digital nudging can affect students’ daily lives.

“At what point in time do we start crippling a whole generation of adults, human beings, who have been so tracked and told what to do all the time that they don’t know how to fend for themselves?” she said. “Is that cruel? Or is that kind?”

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