Architecture for the Transparent University
By G. Randolph Mayes, Ph.D.
Department of Philosophy
California State University Sacramento
While there are many excellent reasons for conducting university courses in the
privacy of a classroom, privacy itself can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand,
effective teaching usually requires a hostage audience. The best lecturers on
the planet can't compete with the delirious distractions of a college campus.
On the other hand, the absence of external scrutiny can create teachers addicted
to positive student evaluations and students addicted to good grades – each
presented with a choice between performance and manipulation to achieve their
respective aims. Is there any way to maintain classroom privacy while insuring
the healthy critical environment essential to serious learning?
The answer is yes, but it rests on a distinction between two senses of privacy,
one essential to effective pedagogy and the other inimical to it.
We experience a violation of privacy whenever others intrude into the personal
space we require to make and execute our plans. In this sense classroom privacy
is clearly essential. However, a more contemporary and increasingly assumed sense
of the term is informational in nature. We experience a violation of informational
privacy whenever others observe us or collect our personal information without
permission. Informational privacy is clearly essential to the well being of a
variety of personal and professional relationships: husband and wife, doctor and
patient, attorney and client, to name a few. Between the teacher and student?
I think not.
The informational privacy of the traditional classroom could be regarded as an
accidental feature of its brick and mortar construction, not something essential
to learning. We are raising the consciousness of old classrooms by installing
the neural architecture necessary to access and display the contents of computer
files located anywhere on earth. Why stop there? If we can give our classrooms
eyes to see out, we can give them eyes to see in as well.
To clarify, let me describe a hypothetical "Transparent University":
At TU all classrooms are fitted with video cameras, and every class taught can
be viewed simultaneously by any student, faculty, or staff member with access
to a networked computer. All classes are stored on digital media, and they are
accessible for up to a year after they are recorded. The cameras are unobtrusive,
and TU classes are superficially identical to those that occur anywhere else in
the country. However, TU professors and students enjoy a variety of unique benefits.
The Benefits of TU
From the professor's perspective, the most obvious and important benefit of TU
architecture is as a tool for improving pedagogical technique. At the end of a
class period, professors at TU are able to sit down at their computers and review
their work. Likewise, preparing for class also involves reviewing previously recorded
TU architecture provides a great deal of pedagogical flexibility, as well as improved
access to instruction. When a student or a professor needs to be absent he needn't
miss the class, either viewing it later or substituting an archived session.
at TU can make better-informed decisions about the courses they take by sampling
recorded lectures before enrolling. Students who believe they are receiving unjust
treatment or incompetent instruction, are able (indeed, required) to demonstrate
this with audio visual evidence. Professors attempting to deal with misbehaving
students are similarly empowered. All classrooms are public places open to anyone
who cares to pay a virtual visit. Students are respectful. Teachers are professional,
punctual, and prepared.
Doubts about Transparent University (TU)
But, why should we believe that what amounts to a surveillance university would
promote the values of the academy? Isn't a system like this more likely to stifle
individual expression and creativity, and discourage faculty from taking the risks
that would ordinarily give character to their courses?
Maybe. But then some of it probably should. The university is not a place for
children, and it is not a place for hypersensitive adults who lack a fundamental
grasp of academic freedom, and the reality of learning at an American institution
of higher education. By the same token, however, it would be just sad to reject
TU on the basis that it requires adult competence and intellectual maturity to
implement it effectively. Transparency will help to muzzle mediocrity and weed
out the shrinking violets, but it will not silence those who take their craft
seriously. Indeed, the latter will appreciate the possibility that she is reaching
a wider audience.
Ideally some state systems building new campuses will be willing to adopt a TU
blueprint. Existing colleges and universities could experiment more modestly by
making TU technology part of their smart classroom upgrade, and by providing incentives
for using it. It is possible that I am exaggerating its potential, or failing
to appreciate its unintended consequences. It is worth finding out, though. That
much should be transparent.
Quite a stimulating set of ideas. We found that, just as we were feeling a
little hostile to the idea Mayes made a point that points to the near inevitability
of much of what he is proposing. And then, just as we were feeling more comfortable
with Transparent University, we were reminded of Hoogendyk and others like him.
What happens to a transparent university when people with their hands near levers
of power "lack a fundamental grasp of academic freedom, and the reality of
learning?" Let’s find out.