Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Teachers Watching Students Electronically


Tracy Boger


Over the lunch hour, a fourteen-year old boy and his friends are gathered around a computer in the library, working on a school assignment. Suddenly the screen flashes, and a giant eye fills the screen. Looking around, the children notice all the other screens are displaying the same large, unblinking human eye. One of the children in the group points out that his last school had the same thing, and that it means the librarian wants everyone to know she is watching them. A few minutes later, their screen returns to its original display and they continue their project work. But the image of the all-encompassing eye stays with the fourteen year old boy. He leaves the library feeling “creeped out,” wondering to what extent he is being electronically watched at school.


It turns out this school is using Vision 6, one of several class room management software programs designed to allow teachers full access to and control of student computers through a console that shows every student’s computer screen. Whenever the software is activated a large eye is displayed on students’ computer screens to warn them that they are being watched. Reminiscent of the telescreens in George Orwell’s novel 1984, the software and the image of the large imposing eye are designed to send students the Orwellian message “we are watching you!”. Clearly the fourteen year old was not accustomed to being watched in this way at school. Yet, other public places such as shopping malls, banks, and grocery stores all have various forms of electronic surveillance. So why would electronic surveillance in a school be any different?


Advocates of classroom management software would say that the image of the eye is nothing more than a “fair warning” to students, reminding them that if they choose to break the rules they will be caught. They might claim that this it is no different than a sign on a roadway that warn motorists of photo-radar, but a school is very different place than a busy roadway. A school is a place of growth and learning. It is a place where students can learn from their mistakes. A busy roadway on the other hand, is not a place to learn by trial and error because people’s lives are literally on the line. Furthermore, the role of the teacher is very different than that of a law enforcement officer. Although both teachers and law enforcement officers enforce rules, for the most part teachers do so with the student’s best interest at heart. Elementary school teachers in particular watch over students in an exceptionally caring way. Law enforcement officers, in contrast, are responsible for enforcing rules with the general public’s interest at heart and are less concerned with shaping the minds and hearts of individuals who make infractions to the law.


This raises important questions about the nature of watching students electronically in schools. Supervision, in the form of a teacher sharing the same physical space as a group of students, is not only universally accepted it is an absolute expectation. Simply put, watching or monitoring students for the purpose of supervision comes with the territory of being a teacher. Teachers monitor students for many reasons. They monitor students to ensure their safety, to assess student work, and to maintain a pleasant classroom climate. The practice of tracking student attendance is a common way to identify at risk students, whereas the practice of checking homework is a way to ensure that students do not fall behind in their studies. So if the supervision of students is a part of a teacher’s regular responsibilities and duties, why would electronic watching be any different?


What is Seen


When a teacher supervises students in person, she relies on all of her senses and takes in a myriad of things all at once. Her field of vision permits her to see that Nancy is reading and that Wendy is looking out the window, while James and Kim are passing notes. Her sense of smell tells her that someone is chewing bubble gum, while the sound of the pencil sharpener tells her someone is behind her at the back of the room. But exactly what is seen when a computer mediates the watchful eye of the teacher? Let’s consider the experience of watching student activities through the use of tracking tools that are built into a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle or Blackboard.


I click on the student tracking report button and see a table of numbers that summarizes my student activities in the online course. The top row of the table contains the headings student id, first access, last access, and total time. Below I see numbers that represent a time for each heading provided in hours, minutes, and seconds. I scroll to the right and see the read messages, posted messages, artifacts created, and artifacts saved headings. I quickly scan the read messages column and see that the number of read messages ranges from 42 to 83. I find this interesting because I know that the quality of each student postings is relatively the same. I wish I could see how much time each student actually spent reading the postings they viewed, but viewing the amount time that a student has a posting open only tells me how long the file was open in a browser.


The teacher examines the student tracking report in the hopes of gaining insight into the student online experience but quickly realizes there are limitations to what he can see. Although the teacher can trace every minute movement that is made in the space of the online classroom, there is no way of knowing for sure whether a student has even bothered to read the content provided. Examining when, how long, and how often, students are online is not helpful in this respect.


When a teacher electronically supervises student activity using the built-in tracking software of a LMS what is seen of the student experience is one-dimensional. There are no bodies to see or voices to hear. Instead the teacher relies on numbers that are supposed to represent certain dimensions of the student online experience. Reducing the student experience to a few predetermined variables severely limits what a teacher sees. It is impossible for the teacher to know how her students’ interact with the postings they access, and she is left wondering about the depth of reading that has taken place. She cannot tell whether it was a comprehensive or superficial read, or whether anything was read at all. Algorithms that count mouse clicks and calculate time spent accessing online content may provide a general overview of what happens online, but it does not give a descriptive account of the student lived experiences as it happens. As such, the very numbers that are supposed to represent student experience actually negate the uniqueness and complexity of subjective student experience from being seen.


Of course it is never easy for a teacher to get an accurate picture of what the student experience really is like by merely watching a student. When a student looks out the window a teacher can never really know with absolute certainty what the student is doing. We might imagine the student is daydreaming or watching something outside, but for all we know the student could be thinking about what to write next or performing mental math in his head. So even when an observer shares the same physical space as a student, it is never easy to grasp the full meaning and significance of the student experience (Van Manen, McClelland, & Plihal, 2007). This difficulty extends into the space of the online world as well. For example, an undergraduate student reveals how difficult it can be for a teacher to fully understand the meaning of the student online experience:


Last term, our professor told us he would be assigning marks for online participation. He said he could track when and for how long we were on WebCT. Right down to the number of clicks. So, for the rest of the term, when I’d go home in the evenings, I’d turn on my computer, log on the course website, and periodically look at or rather click on different things all the while checking my email, catching up on Facebook , etc. Or I would go watch TV. I got a good mark.


Clearly reducing student activity to a few measurable variables does not paint an accurate or complete picture of the student’s real online lived experience. The student seemed confident that he was able to deceive (although that is certainly debatable) his teacher because he was able to create the pretense that he was working online. Of course, it is not uncommon for students to try to deceive their teacher, particularly when they know they are being closely watched. Consider all the times that a student slipped a favorite comic book between the pages of a textbook to create the illusion of reading the assigned textbook or the times a student used the facade of taking notes to hide the fact that the student was really writing a letter to a friend. In fact, one of the reason’s teachers watch students so intently is because they expect students to create the pretence of work.


Regardless of the modality of teaching, a teacher can never really be sure that he is totally in tune with a student’s real lived experience. Given the complexity of understanding the student experience, perhaps electronic supervision is best suited to inform about what the student is not doing. After all when a student navigates to a page we do not know whether the content on the page was actually read; however, we do know for certain the content was not read if the page was never even loaded in the student’s browser. To infer meaning from a collection of isolated student actions that are not in context just might be a disservice to both teacher and student.


Pedagogic Watching


To an outsider the act of “watching over” students and “watching” students might look very similar; however, the lived experience of each is very different. Perhaps the most obvious difference between watching over and watching lies in the intention of the observer. When a teacher or parent watches over children they do so out of concern to keep them safe from harm. Alternatively a teacher may watch over students during an exam to ensure they do not cheat. In each of these examples the act of watching over students carries with it a sense of responsibility. In this way, watching over a group of students is a unique form of pedagogic watching. Merely watching on the other hand, does not necessarily imply the same kind of accountability. Thus watching students from afar feels very different than having the responsibility of watching over students.


Often teachers might watch over students for the purpose of keeping them on task. Depending on the teacher’s intention, this can be viewed as a special kind of pedagogic watching which has the best interest of the student at heart.


I click the tracking button and get a detailed activity summary of my students. I see that most of the class has accessed the course materials needed for this week, except for Jason who hasn’t logged in for almost two weeks. Concerned I click for more details. Jason has read each of the previous assignments a couple of times, but hasn’t touched any of the required readings. I navigate to the assignment drop box. The last two assignments are missing. He’s the only one who missed two assignments. I wonder what is going on. This is not like him. Perhaps he is ill? Or maybe he didn’t understand the assignment? I think it time to contact Jason and see what is going on.


The intention behind the teacher watching her students’ activities is to ensure that all of her students are keeping up with their studies. The teacher is clearly watching over the activities of her students out of concern for their wellbeing. When she notices that Jason has not logged on for two weeks, she takes the time to investigate further to see what the problem is. She discovers that Jason has accessed the assignments a few times but has not touched any of the readings or submitted his assignments. Unsure of what the problem is she is compelled to contact Jason to see if he is sick or if he is having problems with the course materials. This type of watching involves a caring attentiveness. It is subjective, personal, and rooted in preexisting pedagogic relationship, as made evident by the teacher’s comment that this behavior is not like Jason.


The Temptation of Electronic Watching


Pedagogic watching is purposeful, directed, and well intentioned; however, the ease with which a teacher can electronically watch students online can lead to other types of watching.


I just logged into my Blackboard course to see how many of my students have accessed the reading material for tonight’s class. As expected everyone has at least accessed the reading. Even though I know the time students spend accessing the document means very little in terms of whether they have actually read the piece, I scan the user statistics anyway. After all, it only takes the click of a button and barely a minute to scan the statistics of the entire class.


Accessing information about how much time students spend online is incredibly easy, but if it required a great amount of time and effort would this teacher actually take the time to view these statistics? In a face-to-face teaching scenario it would be absurd for a teacher to keep statistics on how long each student has their textbook open. Yet in the online world teachers do take the time to see how long students have kept an electronic document open in their web browser. Even though common sense tells us that this information can reveal very little to us about how a student engages with course materials (or if they bothered to engage with it at all), the temptation to look at these statistics persists. The ease of which these statistics can be accessed creates a temptation to watch that is unique to the experience of electronically watching students online.


Natalie an online instructor reveals the temptation of peering into a student’s private conversation in an online discussion:


When I log into the discussion board I immediately notice one thread has far more activity than the others. When I click on the thread I immediately see that a student has accidentally posted something of a personal nature in the area designated for coursework. Although I know the posting was not meant for my eyes I feel compelled to see what caused so much interest among my students. Part of me feels I should stop peering into Kyle’s personal life but I have to find out what happened. I convince myself that if it were really that personal it shouldn’t be online in the first place. Beside my students can’t tell what I do online anyway. As I read through messages from classmates I do not find closure I am looking for but I am not too worried. I can easily return to the discussion forum for an update to see what happened.


The teacher’s curiosity is sparked by the unusual amount of activity on the discussion board. When she sees what has caused all the activity, she immediately recognizes the online correspondence was not intended for her eyes. Although the teacher feels strange about “peering in” on her students’ private life, the temptation is too great and she persists. She justifies her actions by convincing herself that what she is about the read can’t be all that personal since it has been posted online. She is further encouraged because she knows her online presence is invisible to her students. The ease of which she is able to follow the online discussion without her students’ knowledge encourages her to follow up on the discussion at a later time. In this way the temptation to “listen in” on a student’s private conversation online is very different than listening in on a conversation when the same physical space is shared. Online there is not a reciprocal awareness of presence, which changes the dynamics of listening in. With this reciprocal awareness, a teacher can watch the body language of students and gauge whether she is intruding on a student’s privacy. Online however the teacher can only assume her students’ would not mind her listening in. In addition, feelings of fear and guilt of getting caught may are more intense when one eavesdrops in person. Online however the fear of getting caught is eradicated, making the temptation to watch or peer into the lives of students even greater.


The Invisibility of Watching


Curious and concerned about my student’s progress I login to see what they have been up to. I am surprised at how much time Sara is spending online, while Jack and Anne, who are doing very well, are not online nearly as often. Next, I click on Tom’s name and get a detailed report about his activities. I am particularly interested in him because I expect he will ask for an extension on the assignment that was due today. Then I feel a twinge of guilt, or is it shame? Should the number times a student is online influence whether they get an extension without penalty? I’m not really sure I should know this much about my students’ activities. What if they knew I was watching what they are doing online? Do they even know how easily I can trace their every move, right down to every click of their mouse?


Within the space of the virtual classroom the teacher has immense power. She has the ability to monitor whether her students are online, including for how long, when, and how often. She can trace every minute movement that is made in the space of the online classroom. But is it pedagogically or ethically appropriate to trace a student’s every move, particularly when the student is wholly unaware? While the teacher may have embarked on this path out of genuine concern for the welfare of her students, she suddenly finds herself wondering if she has exceeded the limits of her teacherly purview. Of course, for teachers supervision is not just an expectation; it is a responsibility. In the classroom it is common for a teacher to walk around, and peer quietly over a student’s shoulder to see how they are working out a math problem, or to listen in on a group of students engaged in a heated discussion about a current event. When a teacher listens in on student conversations in the classroom, hallway, and cafeteria there is a reciprocal awareness of the presence. Is this somehow different than a teacher invisibly “peering in” or “listening in” on a student’s online world, completely unnoticed and unseen?


Panoptic Watching


Panoptic watching refers to an observer having the power to see everything without those who are observed being fully aware of the observer’s presence. This definition comes from Michel Foucault’s (1979) analysis of the design of the panopticon prison created by Jeremy Betham. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault (1979) provides an extremely detailed account of the panopticon:


…at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. In the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen. (p. 200)


This analysis provides insight into the experience of what is like for a teacher to electronically watch students, because the experience of panoptic watching dissociates the see/being seen dyad. The panopticon, like online tracking tools, is a technology that alters the experience of watching. When a teacher listens in on student conversations in the classroom, hallway, and cafeteria there is a reciprocal awareness of the presence. This is very different than a teacher invisibly peering in or listening in on a student’s online world, completely unnoticed and unseen. In this way the panopticon metaphor speaks to the experience of watching students online. Of course an obvious weakness of the panoptic metaphor is that when students work online they are never totally seen. The use of classroom management software in computer labs, on the other hand, is frighteningly close to the panopticon metaphor.


After giving my students their task to work on for the remainder of the class I return to my desk where I can easily monitor what my students are doing. The desk is facing the class so I can physically see where each student is situated in the class. I cannot see each individual student’s computer screen from the desk but my networked computer can see everything. Since NetOp is already up and running I click on the thumbnails button. Miniature screens that are exact duplicates of my student’s screens pop up on the screen. There is one thumbnail for each of my student’s screens. Even though the software is set up to prompt me when a student opens any application other than Word, Excel, and Dreamweaver I quickly scan the miniature taskbars. Confident that the system is working properly I take out my marking, which becomes my primary focus for the rest of the class. As long as I am at my desk and the software is running on my computer I am quite confident that none of my students will even try to venture off task.


There are striking similarities between the central lookout tower and the teacher’s desk. Although the teacher is not hidden in the same way that the back lighting veils the observer of the central tower, the teacher’s computer monitor which serves as a window into each students’ cell is completely out of sight. Students do not know if the teacher is checking email, surfing the web, or checking up on their activities. The teacher is confident that as long as she is at her desk the students will behave as if they are being watched. The system assures the teacher that students will remain on task, so she can focus on her marking for the rest of the class. But what does the teacher really see of her students when she uses classroom management software such as NetOp?


Unlike the panopticon where a guard in a central tower watches over prisoners, when the teacher watches students using classroom management software, the teacher does not watch her students per se. Rather she watches an image of their computer screens. The student experience of frustration, confusion, eagerness, disinterest, understanding, or agreement can no longer measured by looking at a student’s facial expression or body language. The student condition is measured in terms of productivity as represented by student mouse movements, keyboard strokes, and the status of the students’ assignment. The teacher’s intention seems to be to ensure that students are on task, but is this really a caring kind of pedagogic watching? Is the intent of watching over students to help them when they encounter a problem or is it to keep them inline and make sure they get their work done? The dynamics of the classroom changes significantly when students are expected approach the teacher whenever they encounter a problem they because responsibility is shifted to the student. Although this in itself s not a bad thing, what does it say about the changing role of the teacher and the purpose of education? After all how can a student help himself if he does not even know he has misunderstood directions or a particular assignment? By the very nature of these questions, it appears classroom management software has the potential to encourage a particular type of watching that emphasizes time management and efficiency, while at the same time possibly overshadowing the needs of individual students.


Panoptic Watching and Pedagogic Relations


Analysis of the teacher’s experience of electronically watching students with classroom management software reveals that panoptic watching is a technical way of watching that can be at odds with watching students in a purely pedagogical way.


When I first got classroom management software in my computer lab I absolutely loved it! I felt powerful every time I took control over a student’s computer and closed down whatever application was keeping the student off task. It wasn’t long before I realized that as long as I was at my desk, students would not even try to go off task. At first this was great but eventually I felt chained to my desk because every time I would venture away from my desk students would see this as their opportunity to go off task. Before I had the classroom management software I regularly walked around the classroom. I enjoyed small talk with students and I am quite sure the feeling was mutual. Now there are significantly fewer opportunities for those types of conversations. I must admit it has significantly changed the climate of my classroom. Before my class was a lively welcoming place but now the sounds of students voices have been replaces by the tap, tap, tap, of the keyboard keys.


According to Max van Manen (1979) there is no preset “tested rules” to guide pedagogic watching, rather the authority of pedagogic observation comes from “the personality (dare I say “character?”) of the pedagogue in the way that this personality is rooted in the deep structure of pedagogic sense making” (p. 6). Pedagogic watching is a profoundly personal and subjective experience. In this case panoptic watching may negate a part of the personal and subjective aspect of the experience of watching students from being realized. For the teacher for example, small talk is an important aspect of watching over her students because it helps built trust and a pedagogic relationship. Only in its absence does she realize that she likes having a lively classroom. Although panoptic watching need not necessarily negate a pedagogic relationship from developing, in this case it seems to have invited a new style of monitoring and supervision that is a significant departure from what it was before.


Where do we go from here?


In his renowned essay “The Question Concerning Technology”, Heidegger (1977) asserts, “we shall never experience our relationship with the essence of technology as long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it” (p. 287). Heidegger challenges us to look beyond an instrumental view of technology and examine it on a deeper level so that it is possible to recognize its hidden subtleties and nuances that we normally take for granted. This points to the importance of considering and reflecting upon the latent effects of teachers watching over their students electronically. We have seen that when a teacher electronically watches a student this may reduce or negate the distinctiveness and realness of subjective student experience from being seen. Of course this does not mean that teachers should abandon all forms of electronic supervision. What is important is that teachers have an awareness of what it means when a computer stands between the watchful eye of the teacher and the student. After all, both online and offline, students are very gifted at creating the pretense of work and a teacher cannot always believe what she sees.


Given the difficulty of interpreting LMS user statistics, perhaps this information is best suited to inform teachers about what the student is not doing. This is not to say that these statistics are useless. A teacher can learn a lot by what a student is not doing. For example, a lack of participation is often a sign that the student may be having problems with the course work. What is important is that teachers do not make assumptions about what students are doing online. To infer meaning from a collection of isolated student actions without the proper context would disservice both the teacher and student.


Perhaps most importantly the attitude that makes it possible for these technologies to creep into our schools in the first place should be taken into consideration. This is precisely what Heidegger (1977) was getting at when he famously proclaimed “the essence of technology is nothing technological” (p.4). He argued that technology emerges from a “technological” attitude that exists prior to any technology’s existence and it is this view that largely defines our relationship with technology. This technical attitude is what Habermas (1984) calls instrumental rationality. This line of reasoning is calculated, driven by efficiency, and tends to reduce relationships to those means and ends. Depending on how it used, many of these technologies certainly have the potential to create a classroom climate that focuses on instrumental watching. Therefore, it is critical to be aware of this potential effect so that we can take measures to ensure that, when the software is used for this purpose, it does not overshadow other important aspects of education. As educators who struggle with the challenge of teaching students who may not want to be taught, we must never lose sight of the purpose of education. After all, do we want our schools to be a place of growth and development or a place where students learn to do as they are told because someone is watching their every move?


Pedagogic watching is not concerned with watching students in instrumental technical ways, but rather it is a caring kind of watching that is very subjective, personal, and deeply rooted in preexisting pedagogic relationships. Of course we have seen evidence that electronic pedagogical watching is possible. Regardless of whether the watching of students is mediated by technology, what is important is the intention or the notion of watching with care. This is why an awareness of the difference between instrumental watching verses pedagogical watching is so critical. In a busy chaotic world it is critical to take the time to reflect upon these matters and ask ourselves how and why we are incorporating these technologies into our classroom and whether this implementation aligns with our own philosophy of education.