Smile for the webcam

People gathered in a business meeting in front of a poster reading "Big Brother is watching you".

Artist’s impression of a tutorial group shortly before lockdown.

“Big Brother is watching you” beam into student bedrooms everywhere from the pages of Moodle as laptops are turned into Orwellian devices to watch students, beaming the reassuring words from the Ministry of Truth (or Minitru, to give it its proper name in Newspeak), to all those herded into ghettos, locked away, forgotten about, and left to suffer.  Young people, who in exchange for exorbitant student fees have been subject to forced labour (well, study) and their laptops turned into surveillance devices so that academics may invade the privacy of their bedrooms to watch, to judge, and to decide in secret congress how students should be punished according to unpublished standards in the absence of any governance or oversight in a scene taken directly out of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984”.

At least, that is what you might imagine is happening if all you had to go on was the somewhat naive and reactionary article Wired just published.  All I can suggest is that they must be desperate to entertain their readers.  That or the author genuinely envisages terrified youths in halls of residence up and down the country huddled around the dying light from a mobile phone screen, waiting for the Thought Police to burst in and drag one of them away for a ‘chat’ with their personal tutor in Room 101.

Back to reality

I can assure anyone who is worried that the only time someone from the University is looking at you through your webcam is when you are sitting in a seminar: your lecturers really do have better things to do than watching you study!  As a university, we want to help and make sure we offer as much relevant and tailored support to these people as possible.  In contrast to the Wired article, we don’t monitor attendance and completion rates to judge and justify unimaginable punishments but to check for patterns that might signal someone is in danger of dropping out of their course.  Disengagement is often a sign that someone is no longer coping, may be beginning to suffer from mental health problems or is feeling so overwhelmed by what they believe they are expected to learn that they are in danger of giving up.  We have a duty of care and we cannot act on conditions that we do not know about, so we keep minimal tabs on who turns up for scheduled activities.

As for monitoring what you are reading, only total usage of resources is gathered – we like to know if people in a Faculty or the University as a whole are using certain resources, and whether everything we have paid a lot of money to subscribe to is getting used and offering good value for money.  You’ve paid for these resources out of your tuition fees, so we want to make sure you know about them and enjoy the benefit from them.  Again, the data gathered is minimal and is used purely to help us to help you.

And besides…

Even if the University did secretly yearn to turn your tablet into a “petri dish for extreme datafication”, the close monitoring that arose in the US is very unlikely to be repeated here, if only because anyone wanting to know anything about you has first to ask your permission to gather it and tell you exactly how it is going to be used under regulations brought in under the Data Protection Act 2018.  Rest assured that we are not gathering data you don’t know about, nor are we using it for any purpose to which you have not already agreed.

Panic over.  Now, what this Minitru employee needs is a nice saccharine-sweet cup of tea…



Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

Posted in Thing of the Day

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