Academic Surveillance Complex

A corporate-driven society overseen by a complicit state, the United States is being steadily saturated by surveillance tools and practices; indeed, surveillance studies is today a substantial field of academic inquiry, with research published regularly in Surveillance and Society, as well as in a growing number of books.[1] After Edward Snowden’s exposures of the National Security Agency (NSA)’s mass surveillance in 2013, thousands of academics rightly signed a letter condemning the US government’s spying program.[2] However, surveillance-sensitive academics have turned a blind eye toward academe itself.

Surveillance technologies have encroached far into the work-lives of students and faculty, to the point that we may speak of an Academic Surveillance Complex (ASC). To “improve” student performance and to “scientifically” smooth and speed student progress, “data driven education” programs are capturing, tracking, collating, and analyzing data on student learning and social behavior; on students’ interactions with teachers; and on the labor of teachers themselves.

The pretense is that this is all positive – an enhancement of the educational process. The emergence of an ASC, however, is better understood as an offshoot of a multifaceted structural transformation of higher education, which has been underway for half a century.[3] This metamorphosis is both technological and institutional. By enabling the social relations of learning and teaching to be revamped, networking technologies are driving forward a sweeping trend to commodification: they are helping to turn education into a profit-making business. Today’s emerging ASC is a part of this encompassing shift.

Wiring Education 

At its outset during the early postwar decades, robust US economic growth and robust state and federal support for public universities both stimulated and restrained the process of wiring education for profit. (A convenient historical marker is provided by an organization called Educom, which has tried since the 1960s to insinuate networking technologies.) In today’s context of chronic stagnation, by contrast, “disrupting” education in order to render it a site of capital accumulation has become a determining trend. As we write, for example, Purdue University has signed an agreement to acquire Kaplan Higher Education – a for-profit chain – and to re-establish it as a free-standing subsidiary of the Indiana-based university system.[4] All told, global education is estimated to be a $5+ trillion market, eight times the size of the commercial software market and three times that of the entertainment market.[5] Already prominent in South America and East Asia, for-profit educational institutions are today making additional inroads in Africa.[6]

Online systems play a dynamic role in these attempts to claw what had been a public service into the market, for the business models that undergird online offerings tend to differ sharply from those that have sustained public universities. Worldwide, in 2015, the number of students who signed up for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) doubled from 2014, to 35 million; MOOCs were offered by more than 500 universities, while it is reported that the established vendors – US companies Coursera, Udacity and edX, Britain’s FutureLearn, Spain’s Miriada X, France’s Universite Numerique – “sharpened their focus on revenue generation.”[7]  The market for MOOCs is forecast to grow to $8.5 billion by 2020, with an annual growth rate of 36%.[8]  The University of Illinois’s partnership with Coursera to offer an online MBA is characteristic, in that its price is set much lower than for the on-campus MBA.  Thus, after having been primed with considerable public funding, MOOCs are set to cannibalize existing institutions and programs, and to increase the number of precarious adjunct professors.[9]  The trend goes beyond MOOCs, which are only one expression of the push into online education. In the US, 5.8 million students – more than a quarter of students in higher education – are enrolled in at least one online course.[10]

Indeed, the political economy of networked education embraces more than just online courses.  For all the ballyhoo about networked education, so far, only a small fraction of the global education market has been digitized – one analyst claims only 2 percent of it.[11] Adherents cast the need to provision institutions with new generations of technology and new applications with almost missionary fervor.[12] The global education technology market is expected to grow by 17% year-on-year to reach $252 billion by 2020.[13] Tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft are battling for supremacy in the education market as they pour low-cost devices, learning management systems (LMS), apps, and cloud platforms into the classroom.[14]  In 2015, global ed-tech startups jumped to record annual highs and reached over $3.1 billion, and the number of deals rose nearly 10% to 491.[15] In the UK presently, there are more than 1,000 edtech startups.[16] A managing director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch considers fast-growing educational technologies to be a successor to Bitcoin-type “FinTech.”[17]

Education in the Marketplace

Decades of budget cuts have starved public universities, driven up student tuition and fees and generated unsustainable student debt levels.  In this context, a wholesale bulldozing of higher education institutions[18] is no longer unthinkable.  Privatization, marketization and corporatization with digital characteristics signify that, rather than building solidarity around democratic norms, efficiency, competitiveness, and profit-maximization likewise have transgressed far into education.

With this as a backdrop, universities and colleges have been introducing a slew of learning and teaching technologies for “accountability” and “competitive advantage.” What students do online, how they spend time, what and how they read and write:  all are grist for the corporate-academic data mill. Universities are also digitally profiling prospective students by tracking their click-throughs on university websites, their calls to admissions offices, and their social media interactions, to better market themselves to the “right” students so as to sustain high enrollment rates.[19]

As students are repositioned as “consumers” (or “clients”[20]) – and made to pick up the cost of often-exorbitant tuition and fees – educational data mining (EDM) has become not only acceptable but positively encouraged. An increasingly ubiquitous ASC encroaches on students’ intellectual freedom and grants growing power to administrators, corporations, and states, as against students and teachers. One corollary is to bring higher education into the net of government surveillance systems, as universities in the UK monitor and collect all attendance data on Tier 4 visa-holding international students to comply with UK Home Office Visas and Immigration officials.

As Google, Facebook, Amazon and Walmart collect and analyze shopping patterns, customer demographics, and click-throughs, universities too are trying to get into their students’ heads and lives. They track student learning- and social behavior to manage students and market their educational products to increase student retention. Losing students impacts the bottom line, so universities are willing to tap into whatever data sources they can find – or create.[21]

“Learning analytics” has become a common practice to profile students by extracting all kinds of data such as what they read and how they read, whether they watch recorded lectures, whether they access learning materials, sometimes even to the point of capturing students’ eye movements, facial expressions, and posture.[22] In Australia, students are being tracked on campus through their mobile phones, with universities using campus wi-fi routers to collect data.[23] This is similar to what Google was forced to stop doing a few years ago, when the company was caught sniffing and collecting wi-fi networks in the process of street mapping.[24]

Building on learning analytics, “personalized” or “adaptive” learning digital platforms, which are one of the most heavily funded areas in educational technology, have also emerged in a new market place which exploits real-time student data.[25] These technologies are being promoted and justified by university administrators and tech companies as supporting “self-paced” learning,[26] and providing students with “value” for money and “accountability” – through their establishment of an ever-more panoptic ASC.

The motivation behind the deployment of these technologies, however, is not just to manage students, but also to cut costs. [27] Universities in the US are redesigning instruction over digital platforms, so as to reduce the number of contact hours, and to replace high-cost instruction with self-service online tutorials and -assessments. [28]  In the UK, a new report, “Rebooting Learning for the Digital Age”, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), [29] advocates cost-reduction as a general principle for “technology-enhanced learning.”

On the other side of the learning equation, faculty labor processes likewise are being digitized, tracked, and managed in the name of “accountability,” or “quality assurance.” One of the major tasks of faculty is to interact with students, and these exchanges are correspondingly being digitized and monitored. Bureaucratic procedures are being restructured around technologies like the already-mentioned LMS. As these systems are used to codify, standardize and industrialize teaching practices, they also keep track of student attendance and of meetings and electronic interactions between students and teachers. All this is rationalized as a support for “student progress.”[30]

Some administrators pressure faculty members to record their lectures, and require them to upload their syllabi online for review by “line managers” – to ensure that they meet administrators’ guidelines and to measure inputs and outcomes for “quality control.” By digitizing faculty members’ labor processes, administrators are strengthening their ability to control teaching, curricula and academic programs.  In the guise of attending more fully to the welfare of students, academic freedom and curricular autonomy are often invisibly undermined. Digitization also carries an additional feature that is far from incidental:  it enables administrators to try to redefine the legal ownership of courses, by making these prospectively lucrative commodities the property of “the university” rather than the individual professor.[31]

Universities are propagating notions of “personalized” or “customized” learning through technology, even as they continue to shift away from full-time, tenure-track- and tenured faculty positions to highly precarious adjunct instructors and other forms of casual contract work. Academic working conditions and job security have each deteriorated.[32] In the US, 30% of college faculty were categorized as part-time in the 1970s; today, 70% are classified as contingent faculty.[33] This Uberization is not exclusive to the US. In the UK, the exact numbers have been hotly debated, but over 50% of academic staff and 49% of teaching staff have insecure contracts.[34] These increasingly precarious academic labor conditions train faculty to accede to their roles of “delivering” curricula to meet “market” demand, and to participate in “experimenting” with new technologies of control in order to maintain their appointments. Today’s academics are asked – or even willingly offer – to be tracked via commercial services like Google Scholar Citation and Academia.Edu[35] as proof of the “impact” and “visibility” of their scholarship. Being surveilled from above – that is, by administrators, states, and for-profit companies – has become a precondition for an academic life.

Behind the façade of “technological innovation,” universities are replicating a long-familiar corporate business model. Reducing labor costs and increasing the number of precarious low-wage workers, introducing new machinery to mechanize, monitor, and control students and faculty labor practices: these carry over features that were ubiquitous in the factory system more than a century ago.

Any new-style authoritarianism is almost certain to be predicated in part on digital mass surveillance, alongside restrictions of democratic freedom of assembly and expression. In this historical context, data mining by the Academic Surveillance Complex bears a profound danger, as an institution devoted – however incompletely and inadequately – to intellectual freedom, democratic self-government, and universal justice relinquishes these constitutive norms. In the era of digital capitalism, there is no such thing as benevolent surveillance!


[1]  Surveillance & Society ; Surveillance Studies Network; Surveillance Studies Centre.

[2] April Glaser, “Academics and Researchers against Mass Surveillance,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, February 12, 2014.

[3] Dan Schiller, Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999: 143-202.  As a historical benchmark, Schiller first drafted this text in 1986-87.

[4] Bill Mullen , “Mitch Daniels Wants To Sell The Soul of Public Education: Purdue Faculty Must Stop Him,” Academe Blog, May 2017.

[5] Justina Crabtree, “College is a much better investment than stocks, BAML analyst says,” CNBC, November 21, 2016 .

[6] Dan Schiller, Digital depression: information technology and economic crisis (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2014): 242-3; David Pilling, “Private Education Plays Expanding Role Across Africa,” Financial Times, May 2, 2017.

[7]MOOC enrolment surpassed 35 million in 2015,” ICEF Monitor, January 5, 2016.

[8]Massive Open Online Course Market worth USD 8.50 Billion USD by 2020,” Markets and Markets.

[9]Mooc creators criticise courses’ lack of creativity,” Times Higher Education, October 14, 2013.

[10] D. Frank Smith, “Report: One in Four Students Enrolled in Online Courses,” EdTech, February 25, 2016.

[11] Justina Crabtree, “College is a much better investment than stocks, BAML analyst says,” CNBC, November 21, 2016.

[12]Global Report Predicts EdTech Spend to Reach $252bn by 2020,” Market Watch, May 25, 2016.

[13] Henry Williams, “Global edtech market to hit $252bn by 2020,” Startups, May 25, 2016.

[14]  Ainsley Harris “How Google Is Schooling Apple And Microsoft In The Battle For America’s Classrooms,” Fast Company, September 12, 2016; “Amazon, Google and Apple,TechOnline, April 22, 2016.

[15]Ed Tech Chill: Ed Tech Startups See Funding Slump and Deals Flatline,” CB insight, April 18, 2016.

[16] David Bainbridge, “Edtech is the next fintech,” Tech Crunch, August 13, 2015.

[17] Ibid.

[18] It should be noted that this is not just happening to higher education, but to K-12 education as well.

[19] Eric Hoover “Getting Inside the Mind of an Applicant,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 25, 2015.

[20] Case in point: in the UK, students are protected by the consumer rights act, so if universities do not meet their obligations or deliver the “products” that they promise, they may be held in breach of contract.

[21]How Data Mining Helped 11 Universities Improve Student Retention Strategies,” Hanover Research.

[22] Janice Gobert, “Educational Data Mining Can Enhance Science Education,” U.S. News, May 13, 2016.

[23] Hyacinth Mascarenhas, “Australian universities tracking students through their mobiles to monitor movement and study habits” International Business Times, August 12, 2016.

[24]  Zack Whittaker, “Germany fines Google for ‘unprecedented’ Street View Wi-Fi data breach,” zdent, April 22, 2013.

[25] Jessy Irwin, “Grooming Students for A Lifetime of Surveillance,” The Synapse, March 12, 2015.

[26] Pam Jackson, “CSU initiatives serve as national model for student success,” Source, Colorado State, April, 2017.

[27] Pam Arroway, Glenda Morgan, Molly O’keefe and Ronald Yanosky, “Learning Analytics in Higher EducationEducause, 2016.

[28] Carol A. Twigg, “Improving learning and Reducing costs: New Models for Online Learning,” Educause, 2003.

[29] Sarah Davies, Joel Mullan, and Paul Feldman, “Rebooting learning for the digital age: What next for technology-enhanced higher education? Higher Education Policy Institute, 2017.

[30]Learning management system,” Harvard University; Peter Rathmell, “Colleges Raise Graduation Rates With New Statistical Tools,” U.S. News, November 4, 2016.

[31] David Noble, Digital Diploma Mills (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998)

[32] Myka Abramson and Harry Stopes, “Academics! You’ve got to fight for your right to job security,” Guardian, December 1, 2015.

[33] Dan Edmonds, “More Than Half of College Faculty Are Adjuncts: Should You Care?Forbes, May 28, 2015.

[35] Even the non-for-profit avenue are being absorbed into the market. Wittiness SSRN being acquired by Elsevier.

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