Professors worry about “digital surveillance” of their work

May 11, 2024
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More than eight in 10 professors say universities’ excessive use of digital technologies is harming academic freedom, according to a survey of academics in the United Kingdom.

The poll of more than 2,000 scholars conducted for the University and College Union (UCU), which represents 120,000 faculty and staff members in the U.K., highlights growing unease over the digital tools commonly used in academe, such as the virtual learning environments used to facilitate teaching, electronic systems to evaluate teaching performance and metrics-based systems such as SciVal that enable managers to scrutinize research publications and citations.

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According to the poll, 82 percent of employees said they felt that digitally enabled performance management practices had reduced academic freedom over the past decade, with 84 percent agreeing that digital monitoring of the student experience had eroded academic freedom.

Lecture recording was also cited as a major staff concern, according to the report, called “Academic Freedom in the Digital University,” published this week. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said lecture recordings captured in virtual learning environments reduced their sense of academic freedom.

Grade monitoring surveillance via digital tools also led a majority of respondents (57 percent) to feel a reduced sense of academic freedom, while the same was true for electronic systems that tracked the design of assessment (65 percent felt compromised), the study found.

One scholar complained about having to “‘fudge’ our marking to ensure we meet the institutional demand that the average mark on any given module is at least 60 and that at least 90 percent of students pass … Student work that eight to nine years ago would have failed is now being given a bare pass mark—essentially, we’re pressured to not mark ourselves out of our jobs,” the instructor added.

Seventy-five percent of respondents also agreed that student feedback tools, including online module evaluations and student satisfaction scores, had eroded their sense of academic freedom. One staff member explained that these feedback mechanisms meant that “every word is monitored” and that “management … always seem to side with students, however irrational they are.”

On research, about two-thirds of respondents (71 percent) said they believed their institutions had the ability to track their research performance via citation monitoring systems, such as SciVal. About 90 percent of respondents said they believed this kind of digital monitoring would lead to more institutional control over research within five years.

The report’s authors, Chavan Kissoon and Terence Karran, both from the University of Lincoln, said its findings showed academics had a “high awareness of their research performance being measured,” which was “impacting negatively on staff well-being,” given that 71 percent said monitoring had lowered their happiness levels.

Universities should collaborate with their workplace unions to establish policies and principles to ensure the ethical use of digital systems, while institutions should be transparent about how they are using new technologies to monitor staff, they added.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the 224-page report showed how universities were “increasingly using digital technologies to surveil, record and scrutinize staff, and that this is corroding academic freedom.”

“All too often, the terms of debate on academic freedom are dictated by right-wing culture warriors, neglecting the day-to-day reality of university staff having their ability to research and teach freely eroded by panopticon-like digital management systems,” said Grady.



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