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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 lectures.

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. Students 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.
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