Higher Education

twittering and live blogging the classroom

I picked on this article in TechDirt from academhack. It’s another one of those situations where there’s some conflict over the issue of twittering and blogging the classroom. The article and the comment discussion really points out two separate questions.

  1. Is the professor within hir rights to forbid students from twittering or blogging in the classroom? But perhaps more germane, why would you do this and what would be the basis for such a policy?
  2. Is there an intellectual property, copyright or privacy issue here in relation to twittering or blogging, as opposed to audio or video recording?

#2 is real simple. Is it a violation for me to go to a movie and then come back here and tell you the plot and/or tell you my favorite lines from the movie? Of course not! So how could it be illegal to talk about a class you are taking. And exactly why would we want to stop our students from discussing the things they hear in class? Honestly, I don’t get the professor who would want students to keep the matters of the classroom secret. It isn’t group therapy. It’s not an AA meeting. No one is signing a non-disclosure agreement. As to the issue of A/V recording, while I’m not a lawyer, I think this varies from state to state. I can understand why one wouldn’t want to be taped, especially without foreknowledge.

From a general ethical perspective, as a professor, I would think of my presentation as my property. That means you aren’t allowed to record or distribute the audio or video without my permission. Additionally, the documents I write for a class are copyrighted. Now generally speaking, my choice is to give this material away under a creative commons license (attribute/non-commercial). But that’s an individual choice.

However you are entirely free to write about my class. You are entitled to dislike my class. You’re entitled to say anything short of slander, though I am assuming that if you were to have such a low opinion of me you wouldn’t be coming by my office to ask for a recommendation letter. The point being that you have a right to free speech but that doesn’t absolve you of the consequences of what you write.

#1 is more complicated.

As a professor you certainly have the right, if not the responsibility,
to eliminate unwarranted disruptions in the classroom. I think it is
questionable whether or not a student typing on a laptop or into a
mobile phone is necessarily any more of a disruption than a student
writing notes in a notebook. You could argue that students wearing inappropriate clothing in the classroom are more disruptive, but when is the last time you saw a student sent from the classroom b/c of some dress code? Certainly a student could be disruptive in his/her use of a laptop. A student could make disruptive use of a chair or shoes. Are we going to make all the students sit on the floor and take off their shoes? Are we faculty or the TSA?

Now a professor might think that student laptops are not a best practice for learning and forbid their use for that reason. I think this is the argument we have heard from some law schools. Do you think that it would be acceptable for a professor to forbid note-taking altogether based on the same argument? Or forbid the use of pen and paper but permit electronic recording and note-taking? The only real differences here are cultural-ideological-rhetorical. It is more acceptable, right now, among faculty to forbid laptops than pen and paper. It was once acceptable to forbid silent reading. I would think the more logical and ethical path is to allow students to make their own decisions that reflect their own learning styles. Personally I never took notes as a student. Occasionally someone said something that made me think of something that I would jot down on the corner of newspaper or on a book. But that was just my style.

In any case, I’m not much impressed by the arguments of disruption or best practice.

Honestly, I think this issue is largely one of control, just as it was for the faculty who forbade silent reading and limited access to libraries. The idea of students writing about classes, sharing their notes, and having discussions in public online spaces about classes is a little frightening. Who knows what will be said?

But isn’t this the point? Isn’t the idea of education for knowledge to be spread? Sure, students can and will misunderstand things they learn. They may bring uninformed and sophomoric perspectives. If you think that’s scary, imagine what percentage of American voters will cast their presidential votes based on misunderstandings or uninformed perspectives! What do you think? 80%? But I digress. Maybe our job as faculty is to engage our students in these public dialogues, not only as best practices in terms of their education, but also to rise to meet a larger educational imperative.