Online window goes both ways for students

Observation is constant in our generation. We observe each other. We observe ourselves. We observe media, and media most certainly observes us. But as technology gives us the power to observe each other further, you have to wonder where the line is drawn between the informative and the invasive.

Rita Yeung | Daily Trojan

On campus, this question manifests itself in the ubiquitous education tool Blackboard.

Lauded for its easy interface, communication abilities, organization and environmentally conscious benefits, we tend to hear less about the activity-monitoring capabilities of the program, such as Blackboard AttendancePro, a feature that gives professors and administrators more insight into the time we spend online than we’re probably aware of.

The company’s website boasts the sites advantages with questions such as “What if your enrollment team could monitor students’ activity and progress within the online learning environment?” and  “What if your instructors could not only track logins and downloaded content, but also monitor online discussions and other collaborative forums in which students have participated?”

To me those sound like an uneasy step away from “What if your professor slept on the futon in your room and accompanied you to class, the library and occasionally The Row?”

It’s no surprise that our generation’s technological strides would eventually start to close the disconnect between professors and students. And in the form of discussion forums and grade spreadsheets that enhance accessibility and communication, I’m on board.

Putting aside my qualms about what automated education is becoming, however, I think this monitoring can be taken a step too far.

The professor raised the issue voiced her own unease about over monitoring her students’ activity on Blackboard, recognizing that there should be a certain degree of autonomy to an education, particularly a collegiate one where we’re all allegedly learning to become more independent and require less supervision.

Perhaps these tools are appropriate in middle schools when quizzes were necessary to check if you’d read your Judy Blume that day.

But shouldn’t adult students be given the chance to sink or swim without records of time spent on each screen? It feels like an educational model fit for a scaled-down George Orwell novel. I don’t want to wax paranoid, but it does seem that many students aren’t aware their teachers are monitoring students’ activities on Blackboard.

And although there aren’t likely to be notable repercussions or invasion of privacy lawsuits, it does seem a tad unfair that professors are privy to how much time students spend on homework and when they spend it.

Though teachers are professional enough to assign grades without factoring that in, you have to wonder if you might one day be unconsciously marked down because your professor found out that you started your paper an hour before the midnight deadline and turned it in at 11:58 p.m.

Of course, these surveillance technologies aren’t unique to the classroom. Ever wondered how the ads on Google and Facebook are so perfectly tailored to you?

Facebook, for instance, cleverly bases the advertisements running beside your newsfeed on the content of your profile. Obviously, the concept of target demographics isn’t new — there’s a reason why Rock’em Sock’em Robots are more prevalently advertised on Nickelodeon than Rogaine.

But it’s one thing to find coupons for jeggings in a tabloid and another to see ads for the day care center down the road from your home while surfing the Internet.

Google’s AdSense operates similarly, using information gathered from past interactions with the advertisers to pander to your specific demographic.

Furthermore, the content of the e-mails you write are scanned for matches with advertisers, as are your demonstrated Internet behaviors. For example, if you placed a set of Bose headphones in an online shopping cart but never actually made the purchase, don’t be surprised to see them appear in your Google advertisements soon thereafter.

The Internet has provided us with a double-edged sword. While voyeurism and exhibitionism are on the rise with sites as seemingly harmless as Facebook, and the more dicey ChatRoulette, the pervasive element of personal information gathering can extend to programs such as Blackboard, where we don’t necessarily expect it.

And in all fairness, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of explicit harm to students in their teachers being able to see the time they’ve logged studying online.

But to many users, the Web is a one-way mirror; we’ll spend hours studying the line-up of suspects, observing them mercilessly without hesitation because it seems like no one is peering back.

Au contraire, Generation Y; there are always fingerprints.

Allegra Tepper is a freshman majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation,” runs Tuesdays.