surveillance, trust & technology: higher education futures

Several of the research and writing projects and discussions I’ve been involved with this year have directly or indirectly addressed issues of trust and surveillance, and this is an area of work I’m planning to develop further, along with a number of great colleagues.

In several talks this year, at Strathclyde in Glasgow; the University of Sydney; and the Networked Learning Conference in Zagreb, I’ve been drawing on our Manifesto for Teaching Online to develop my thinking about plagiarism detection and attendance monitoring – two routine processes which are becoming increasingly intensive and often invasive in most universities. For example, Hamish Macleod and I recently argued that

Logics of surveillance are strongly at work in practices which attempt to regulate student behaviour through the exposure of their writing to algorithmic scanning and monitoring. These logics frame students as in need of careful monitoring to ensure learning and teaching runs smoothly, and framing academic writing as a space of dishonesty which is both rampant and solvable through technology. Routines of plagiarism detection intervene negatively in one of the central facets of student-teacher relationships: the production and assessment of student work. Where these relationships become risk-averse and mutually suspicious, trust is blocked or lost and not easily regained. (Ross and Macleod 2018, 235)

We end that paper by arguing that we need to find “ways to re-sensitise ourselves and our students to the values we want to prioritise in our classrooms, and offering means by which students can voice their responses to surveillance cultures in higher education; and [address] issues at strategic levels within our institutions and the sector more widely by developing robust mechanisms for engaging in critical debate, discussion about and review of technology platforms and practices”. This second point echoes one of the key observations made by Laura Czerniewicz at her keynote address in Zagreb last month:

My talk in Zagreb (Hamish couldn’t make it, being retired and all!) generated quite a lot of interest, and it’s clear this is resonating with people from across a number of higher education contexts:

I’ve been involved in a number of intense discussions on these issues, during my seminars in Glasgow and Sydney, and with colleagues in the UK and North America (including Amy Collier and George Veletsianos). A highlight was a discussion with David Lyon and Sava Saheli Singh at Queen’s University in Canada last month. David’s latest work on surveillance culture is greatly informing my thinking. Colleagues closer to home are also doing fantastic work in related areas – Sian Bayne on anonymity; Jeremy Knox on learning analytics, Phil Sheail on data bodies in the library, Ben Williamson on monitoring in the school classroom.

The relationship of trust and technology in higher education is one that, in my view, requires a lot more attention.

It’s emerging as a key issue not only in the context of technologies of monitoring and surveillance, but in other more surprising places – like the current blockchain craze, which is generating new discussions about all sort of things…

…but perhaps less than it should about what kinds of models of trust (or trustlessness) we are inviting into the academy with these new technologies. Helen Murphy, one of the participants on my Digital Futures for Learning course this year, developed an excellent Open Educational Resource on this topic:

She says:

the blockchain is often described as ‘trustless’. We might think of what it means to be ‘trustless’ in two ways:
First, data.
The data in the blockchain is immutable and transparent, permanent and unalterable. Data in the blockchain is added by consensus, and because it is distributed there is no single copy of the data. In theory, it can be accessed by anyone. So it is trustless in the sense that no trust is required: it can be taken for granted that the data is accurate and permanent.
​Second, decentralisation.
With the blockchain, there is no need for a centralised authority (such as a bank or university) to verify transactions. Instead all of this verification can be done independently, by the technology and the mechanisms by which it works. So it is trustless because it does not require any trust in these third-party institutions.

(Murphy 2018)

I’m doing some work with colleagues in Digital Education and Information Services on exploring the potential and issues around blockcert technology, and these questions of trust and trustlessness are figuring strongly.

So, look out for more writing on this from me and others in the near future!

One of the most important things, I think, is beginning to speculate and design futures for higher education that are ‘beyond surveillance’. Importantly (and thanks to Peter Goodyear in Sydney for highlighting how important this point is), this doesn’t mean alternatives that require us to return to imagined better analog times  – instead, we need to develop trusting digital futures and approach our technologies critically and creatively to help us do so.  I, and others, will be working on this over the next year – get in touch if you want to discuss!


Lyon, D. 2018. The Culture of Surveillance: Watching as a Way of Life. Polity Press.

Murphy, H. 2018. Education and the Blockchain.

Ross, J. and Macleod, H. 2018. Surveillance, (dis)trust and teaching with plagiarism detection technology. Proceedsing of Networked Learning 2018, Zagreb.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *