From the Guest Editor: The Higher Ed Data Juggernaut

By Siobhan Senier

In memoriam David Golumbia*

In December 2020, a group of leading scholars of educational technology, including Jesse Stommel—a contributor to this special issue—held a landmark teach-in #AgainstSurveillance. The event was a benefit for Ian Linkletter, a librarian and learning-technology specialist who is being sued for having tweeted about the remote-proctoring vendor Proctorio. Your own campus might well be using Proctorio to monitor your students when they take exams. The lawsuit claims that Linkletter infringed on the company’s intellectual property rights by sharing links to proprietary faculty-training videos, which is rich when you consider that Proctorio has seri­ously infringed on Linkletter’s academic freedom. He and others, including hundreds of student petitioners in Illinois, New York, Texas, and elsewhere, have been vocal critics of Proctorio and similar tools that monitor students and capture their data, arguing that they violate students’ privacy and even discriminate against them based on race and (dis)ability.

Linkletter’s case has stretched on for three years now. Whatever the outcome, it’s not easy to be sanguine about the future of technology in higher education. Some days, it feels like all faculty can talk about is the headache-inducing proliferation of tools and platforms that are increasing our workloads, shrinking our workforce, abrogating our academic freedom, interfering with our pedagogy, and generally policing us and our students. Proctorio is only one among countless enterprise-software companies now swimming around our colleges and universities like sharks. They make outlandish promises to streamline education and make it more efficient: Instructure, which makes the learning management system (LMS) Canvas, has gone so far as to promise to “take a cognitive burden off teachers.” This industry is a jug­gernaut, a fast-growing global market valued at $123 billion in 2023, and it is siphoning millions of dollars each year off already shrinking budgets for human instruction. Equally concerning, it is siphoning our data too. And it is doing so with less and less faculty oversight, input, or even awareness.

One participant in that #AgainstSurveillance teach-in, the ever-incisive Chris Gilliard, warned that we’d be foolish to think that our institutions will not turn— and are not already turning—the same kinds of digital surveillance they are using on students against faculty and staff. In a 2017 piece, “Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms,” Gilliard described the challenges of teach­ing students to think critically about the technologies that they use, and that in turn use them:

The black box nature of the web means that we can never definitively say to them: “This is what you are going to be a part of.” The fact that the web functions the way it does is illustrative of the tremendously powerful economic forces that structure it. Technology platforms (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and education technologies (e.g., the learning management system) exist to capture and monetize data. Using higher education to “save the web” means leveraging the classroom to make vis­ible the effects of surveillance capitalism. It means more clearly defining and empowering the notion of consent. Most of all, it means envisioning, with students, new ways to exist online.

When we sign up for new platforms—or rather, when our CIOs sign us up—faculty must ask what we’re being signed up for. And we must understand that our relationships with these technologies are going to be opaque and asymmetrical. Exactly what data are they capturing, and how are our institutions and their external vendors using these data for profit? How, for instance, are LMSs like Canvas using our data to cre­ate yet more products they can sell back to us? How is curriculum-management software being used to manipu­late course caps or justify course cancellations and even program closures? How are data analytics being used to privilege “market-sensitive, in-demand” academic programs and divert students away from majors deemed unprofitable? How are the panoply of productivity-measuring and “workforce-management” platforms misrepresenting our labor while adding untold hours to our workweeks? Who exactly has access to information submitted through anonymous reporting platforms for sexual harassment, and how are those platforms interfac­ing with faculty and staff personnel files?

Audrey Watters has charted the steep rise of “cop shit” in educational technology, especially since the 2016 elections. She borrows that scatological phrase from Jerry Moro, a digital humanist who uses it to refer to tools and practices ranging from plagiarism-detection software to reporting students to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Watters writes: “I could clearly see how easy it would be for a strain of Trumpism to amplify the surveillance technologies that already per­meated our schools. . . . I think this is one of our most important challenges in the months and years ahead. We must abolish ‘cop shit,’ recognizing that almost all of ed-tech is precisely that.”

And then, of course, there was COVID-19. Educa­tional technology thrives on disaster capitalism, and resistance to it is going to require leveraging not just the classroom, as Gilliard says, but also our AAUP chapters, our faculty senates, and every bit of collec­tive response we can muster. In the articles that follow, our colleagues describe some of the concrete steps they have taken in this fight.

Catherine McGowan, Britt Paris, and Rebecca Reynolds, in a report they recently prepared for the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, analyzed ten learning platform systems with which Rutgers University has contracted under license agreements. In this issue’s opening arti­cle, adapted from that report, they identify systemic problems with efficacy, privacy, and security and issue a clarion call not to let the COVID-19 crisis define the future, at Rutgers or at any other institution.

Martha Fay Burtis and her colleague Jesse Stom­mel, meanwhile, describe what happened when they tried to protest the adoption of a “customer relation­ship management” tool. The rollout of such platforms now seems inevitable, but Burtis and Stommel provide a practical list of pointed questions we should be ask­ing, and that will likely blow our CIOs’ minds.

In a more philosophical vein, Eric Scarffe and Kather­ine Valde ponder the fantasy of quantitative assessment and the dangers of appealing to instrumentalism for liberal arts majors. Writing from an administrative point of view, Trinity Washington University president Patricia McGuire explains how data-driven decision-making is being fueled by what she calls “the three behemoths”—the US Department of Education, accreditors, and lenders. Some administrative bloat, she contends, comes from the demands of compliance.

Those behemoths, of course, are political, not objective, something Neil Kraus reminds us of in the final article. “Higher education,” he writes, “has not yet begun to adequately consider the implications of an information ecosystem in which almost all data are produced or funded by corporate interests and foun­dations.” Indeed, while data-driven decision-making is hardly new, we are facing new or intensified pressures on our very curricula. With tenure grievously weak­ened and an overwhelming majority of the faculty rendered so precarious, data-driven “strategic realign­ment” is now turning its attention to the elimination of specific fields of inquiry—critical race theory, for example, and language study—and to the dismantling of publicly funded education, period.

In this environment, fighting over the next advis­ing dashboard may strike some faculty members as a hill they just can’t die on. But these platforms underlie all the other assaults on our governance. We labor now under an unholy alliance among “surveillance capitalism,” “the tyranny of metrics,” and “shitty auto­mation,” to borrow terms coined by Shoshana Zuboff, Jerry Muller, and Brian Merchant, respectively. We need our own new alliances—among faculty, staff, and students—to fight back.

Siobhan Senier is professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is also vice president of AAUP-UNH and the book review editor for Academe.

* We mourn the loss of our friend David Golumbia, associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Before his untimely death in September 2023, he planned to contribute to this special issue. We know he would have had wise things to say.