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Harvard Researchers Under Fire for Snapping Student Pix without Letting Them Know

When does a university need to inform its students that they may be photographed for the purposes of research without letting them know first? Harvard University is working through that question now in the wake of admissions that cameras were secretly set up in some classrooms by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) as part of a research study.

The project took pictures of about 2,000 students starting in spring 2013 to measure attendance levels.

As reported by school newspaper the Harvard Crimson, the disclosure surfaced at a faculty meeting where Peter Bol, the vice provost for advances in learning "admitted" that the cameras existed when questioned by another professor. Computer Science Professor Harry Lewis had heard about the research initiative from two untenured colleagues who had learned about the cameras "when a senior central administration official" had called to discuss the results of the project.

"Just because technology can be used to answer a question doesn't mean that it should be. And if you watch people electronically and don't tell them ahead of time, you should tell them afterwards," Lewis was quoted as saying. "We would all benefit, I think, from more peer feedback on our teaching. But none of us, students or faculty, want to be treated like inmates of some academic panopticon, never knowing for sure whether we are being or have been under scrutiny while we were going about our daily business of teaching and learning."

Bol responded that the researchers chose not to divulge the cameras because they didn't want to "bias the sample." He noted that individual students weren't tracked or identified "in any way," and the results were not being used for the purpose of evaluating teachers. "We wanted to know if we could get valid evidence on attendance, and we wanted to see if there were any patterns in the data that might support conclusions about whether or not we should care," he added.

According to the Crimson coverage, the photographs were processed through a program that counted seats as empty or filled and calculated the quantities for each lecture. Data in hand, Bol visited with each lecturer to share the individual findings.

The research program had been approved by the Institutional Review Board, which monitors research and makes determinations regarding "human subjects research." The board had determined that the study "did not constitute human subjects research." That meant that students photographed didn't need to be informed beforehand.

According to one university Web site, "If the information you are acquiring is strictly factual, and the objective of your research is not to study the people who are giving you data, then it is not human subjects research." By that definition, the researchers behind the project had no reason to inform those being photographed since the study didn't intend to uncover "what some person thinks, feels or has experienced or how he or she responded to a certain stimulus."

Bol told the Crimson that the photos from the research have been "destroyed."

In light of the disclosures, the university has "promised" that students and faculty who turned out to be subjects in the project would be notified. An oversight committee may also take up the question about whether new processes need to be put in place to address the questions raised in this situation. That committee was set up two years ago in the wake of disclosures that administration had read faculty emails without first informing them.

Bol was named to his current post in September 2013 to oversee the institution's efforts to support faculty experimentation in new teaching methods, research on learning sciences and the use of technologies and tools to enhance teaching and learning on campus and online.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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