[Column] Webcams

TU Delft should support any tool teachers need to monitor students during the next exam period. This to avoid total exasperation, columnist Monique van der Veen writes.

Monique van der Veen: “If you are concerned about polarisation at all, then assuming that ‘I am the problem’ is a very good option.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

I live in Rotterdam, close to a canal bordered by wide stretches of grass with weeping willows. When my nieces and nephew came to visit the first time after we moved here, they immediately took to swinging on the weeping willows, Tarzan and Jane style. I had never seen a kid in the neighbourhood do that. But then, these are city kids, while my kin are country born and bred.

During the closed schools period, city kids appeared who did indeed swing on the weeping willows. There were troupes of children, typically in groups of boys or girls, prancing through the neighbourhood streets, mucking with sticks in the canal water, balancing on edges, and all without adult supervision. They had to solve their own disputes and take their own calculated risks.

I imagine that it might set them up for the life skill of advocating on your own behalf comfortably and cordially. In any job, there will be numerous instances where you have a conflict of interest with your supervisor or colleagues, or where your boundaries are tested – often even well-intentioned or out of ignorance. Advocating on your own behalf doesn’t mean you’ll always get what you want, and that too is a good thing (the Rolling Stones made a song about that). But this, rather than relying on a higher authority, will in any case give you an acute sense of having a backbone, and help you sleep better. 

‘I do want to surveille students during exams’

So you can see that I developed quite a romantic and idealised view of these children, who I imagined were having the best time of their lives. I was brought back from that reverie by a colleague who mentioned that he had installed a tracking app on his kids’ phones. I wondered, “Are we setting up our children for lives where constant surveillance is the new normal?” After all, we already use numerous online platforms that most definitely store our data. Sometimes we take a stand on this. For example with Zoom for not being privacy proof leading to the TU Delft decision to replace it in the near future with Microsoft Teams, whose functionality is different. Microsoft Teams is great for document sharing, not so great for online social activities like team coffee breaks as only nine webcams are visible simultaneously. And it too collects user information.

Speaking of webcams and surveillance, as a teacher, there is one situation where I do want to surveille students: exams. Many teachers have recently adopted handwritten exams where every teaching assistant invigilates about 25 students on Zoom to ensure the exam is done independently. This is not an option considered by Brightspace support. We can get philosophical about the right degree of student surveillance. And we can even wonder whether traditional end-of-period exams really are most conducive to learning, as they promote peak performance on exam day and students might forgot most of the material within days. If we redesign our assessment more towards life-long retention, perhaps exams can proceed with less surveillance.

That, however, won’t happen in the coming months. Many teachers will be exasperated if Zoom disappears during the next examination period. It would be possible via Kaltura Virtual Classroom in Brightspace if we had that available. But if nothing pans out, there is an alternative though: Jitsi that runs on surf.nl also allows for watching many webcams simultaneously. It is open source and does not collect user data. It couldn’t be more privacy-proof. Yet, it’s not very user friendly. So my recommendation to the central teaching services holds: track what online functionality teachers need and use, and support it.

Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team here and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen.

Monique van der Veen / Columnist

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