e-Learning: Power in the Online Classroom


Online technologies are frequently spoken of in democratic and liberatory terms, and clearly many have such potential in the classroom and beyond. As I’ve noted here before, one of the things I really enjoy about teaching on the part-time MA Photojournalism and Documentary course is engaging with course groups made up of students from across the globe, who might not otherwise be able to study our program because of geography and their commitments elsewhere. This geographic diversity is reflected in the work that is shown in our sessions, where even quite prosaic assignments (for example to take a portrait of a stranger) can result in an incredible diversity of subjects and approaches. While similar financial barriers might remain as those that curb access to traditional face to face courses, the democratic possibilities of online teaching are clear, even if they are unevenly realised.

Beyond overcoming the tyrannies of geography, online teaching can be seen as more democratic in some other respects. Since recently rereading and writing about Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, I have been thinking about the ways in which the online classroom challenges the traditional hierarchies of the classroom, in particular the spatial hierarchy of tutor and students facing each other apart, or at least with arrangement of the space focused on the teacher. These are arrangements which, as I noted in a piece on Focault’s text, have certain panoptic qualities. These hierarchies are so familiar and expected, ingrained into us practically from the moment we first enter school, that I think they often hardly register on students, who obey them without thinking. I have few fixed teaching rooms and often arrive to find rooms laid out in a wide variety of ways. Almost regardless of these arrangements, or where I decide to position myself in a classroom, students have a tendency to array themselves around the teacher as they have no doubt been taught to do from an early age. This tendency is something I’d like to explore and experiment with counter-acting  in the future.

The online classroom clearly dispenses with this student-teacher arrangement, and the hierachical and panoptic qualities that come from this, but there are questions about the extent to which these tensions and tyrannies are replaced by new ones. These feed into wider questions about the extent to which the liberational or democratic qualities of these technologies are tempered by other more authoritarian characteristics. While we might worship the cult of the small tech startup and the innovative entrepreneur, the reality is that technologies are still invariably developed and deployed by those with greater power than those who actually use them  on a day to day basis. Because of this I think it’s always useful to ask questions about the extent to which old and new technologies incorporate elements of the power relations of the time and place that given rise to them, or the ways initially positive innovations might open up repressive possibilities in the future. As an example Facebook have recently announced plans to use artificial intelligence to detect suicidal users, a move which to me smacks of rolling out ubiquitous surveillance disguised as humanitarianism (it’s notable they are also looking at ways to use the same technology to detect potential terrorists).

In the context of online teaching these issues seem very important and yet not all that much discussed. In some respects you can see online classrooms as functioning in a way which is very top down and controlling. In the online classroom, physical hierarchies might be dispensed with, but I can see them being replaced by a different set of challenges, new hierarchies and forms of control which are in many ways more total, and more unchallengeable for students (and perhaps for tutors also). In contrast to the physical classroom, where sessions are always something of a negotiation between teacher and taught, in the online classroom the teacher/moderator is given a far more complete control over the session. Through the various options afforded me through the classroom software I am able to control what the class sees, who participates, who speaks, and so forth. This control is also highly limited of course, and in practice I have no idea of what a student on the other end of the connection is actually doing, indeed whether they are even still there or have left to make a cup of tea or hang out their washing. At the risk of getting making predictions best left to science fiction, one could see future iterations of such technologies seeking to address these blind spots, for example giving tutors live feedback on individual student engagement based on techniques like cursor or eye tracking. This could massively improve teaching and learning, but it could also be worryingly authoritarian.

This connects to the broader issues of the type of information we are generating through our interactions in these online environments and how that is being used. Data, like heat, is generated with almost every movement in the modern world, and like heat, data is highly persistent. It would be naïve to think there is not a certain amount of data logging taking place in the online classroom, whether by the software developer (perhaps to aid in future development or troubleshooting) or from the institution who operates it. Tutors are sometimes rightly concerned about the prospect of their online sessions being recorded and reused, but at least it is clear when it is taking place. What is less apparent is what other information we might be generating and what it might later be used for. This article suggests some of the end applications will be benign, indeed educationally powerful. However, the issue with individual data, rather like the technologies that generate it, is its ready applicability also to more malign purposes. What this means is that not the online classroom is not only a space where I as a teacher have an enlarged set of powers over my students compared to the real world, physical lesson, but it is also one where as a group we are caught within a large network of technologies and operators which may be monitoring our teaching, learning and more besides.

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer. www.lewisbush.com www.disphotic.com

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