Faculty Tensions I: The Sanctity of the Classroom

At the Arts and Sciences meeting, objections to monitoring of students—and changes in health benefits

At the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting on November 4, a rare standing-room-only crowd of professors expressed their disagreement—sometimes passionately—with two recent University actions they associated with the central administration:

•the revelation, in a question from the floor, that Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) researchers had used cameras to photograph 10 classes to measure patterns of student attendance during lectures—without notifying either the professors or the students

•the changes in health benefits unveiled September 3, which will subject faculty members and nonunion staff employees in Harvard’s benefit plans to coinsurance and deductibles beginning in 2015—potentially exposing families to new costs of up to $4,500 per year

This dispatch covers the first issue. A separate report covers the heated discussion of health benefits, culminating in a unanimous vote of the faculty members present calling on the University to rescind the benefit changes.

(In accordance with FAS rules for coverage of its meetings, in the detailed accounts that follow, only speakers who have granted permission can be identified, quoted directly, or associated with paraphrases of their remarks. Where such permission has not been secured, the accounts remain anonymous; if permission is granted after publication, this account will be updated accordingly.)

Monitoring Classrooms

During the question period, Harry R. Lewis, Gordon McKay professor of computer science (he is also director of undergraduate studies in computer science, and a former dean of Harvard College), rose and made the following statement:

Madam President, I learned recently from two of my faculty colleagues that students in their courses had been surreptitiously photographed throughout the past spring term using cameras trained on the seats in the lecture hall. This was done under the cloak of research on class attendance. A senior university official called in these professors and explained that by means of this electronic monitoring, images of all the students in attendance had been captured at each class. These faculty colleagues, neither of them tenured, first learned that their classes had been under surveillance when this senior central administration official called them in without informing the computer science area dean, and asked them to comment on the attendance data. And contrary to a basic principle of research involving human subjects, the students who were subjects of this study still, I believe, have not been informed that their images were captured and analyzed.

This study raises many important and troubling questions. Questions about the oversight relations between faculty, deans, and department heads in the FAS, and the plethora of provosts we now have. Questions about who controls the classrooms in which we teach—this study seems to me at odds with a vote of this Faculty that describes the classroom as “a special forum” where the teacher determines the agenda. But I will focus on just the most obvious and urgent action item.

This university took great efforts under your leadership and Professor Barron’s to get a grip on issues of electronic privacy. Yet some basic principles seem not to have sunk in everywhere. Just because technology can be used to answer a question doesn’t mean that it should be. And if you watch people electronically and don’t tell them ahead of time, you should tell them afterwards.

We would all benefit, I think, from more peer feedback on our teaching. But none of us, students or faculty, want to be treated like inmates of some academic Panopticon, never knowing for sure whether we are being or have been under scrutiny while we were going about our daily business of teaching and learning.  Can we have your assurance that all the students and faculty who were subjects of this nonconsensual study will be informed that they were under photographic surveillance?

To put Lewis’s concerns in context: the FAS was convulsed during the 2012-2013 year, when a huge case of undergraduate academic misconduct metastasized into faculty concern, and public debate, about seriatim disclosures of administrative investigations of resident deans’ e-mail accounts—part of a search for putative leaks of information from the investigation, and perhaps contact with reporters from The Harvard Crimson. In the fallout, the then College dean departed her job; President Drew Faust set up a task force under then Green professor of public law David Barron (now a federal judge) to study an updated, uniform policy on the privacy of electronic communications; and the policy was promulgated. With this background, no administrator would look forward to allegations that the sanctity of the classroom (where photography is strictly regulated, and where student identities are protected)—and faculty and student privacy—had been violated.

So careful observers might have paid special attention during the HILT conference in September, when, as reported then, Samuel Moulton, HILT’s director of educational research and assessment, asked what he called the “darkest, hardest question” in the field: “How do we measure learning and teaching?” He showed extensive data on attendance at lectures—and how it declined during the semester. The most important reason for attending or missing lectures, he reported, involved a student’s reason for taking a course. Pre-medical requirements were correlated with high attendance. Moulton added that lecture attendance is a measure of student engagement: “People vote with their feet.”

As Lewis’s remarks have now made clear, the data Moulton reported (watch the video here) were collected photographically. (It helps to remember that FAS does not take attendance or assign seats in class as a matter of routine—unlike, say, Harvard Business School, where the teaching method depends on student attendance and class participation, and where students are seated with a name card so professors can identify them when they speak—and record participation after the class session.)

Studying Classroom Attendance

Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations Peter K. Bol rose to respond. He was appointed vice provost for advances in learning in September 2013, assuming responsibility to oversee HILT and the HarvardX online learning enterprise. (He is also a member of the board of directors of Harvard Magazine Inc., which oversees this magazine.)

Bol said that in answering Lewis’s questions, he wanted to “give a little background.” He continued:

A year ago, on taking the position as vice provost for advances in learning, part of my brief was to support the growing interest in improving teaching and learning across the campus. I began to wonder if there was a growing disconnect between how students were choosing to spend time and the expectations teachers had of their students.

Over the years I had heard colleagues assert that students in increasing numbers were skipping class, that the amount of work done outside of class (with some very notable exceptions) was decreasing, and that there was less rigorous note taking. Such anecdotes raised questions about the effectiveness of lectures as a way of helping students learn and suggested that there might be some value in exploring how new media and pedagogical techniques might be used by faculty to turn the lecture into something that was more interactive and engaging rather than simply an exercise in listening.

However it turned out that we did not have any data to support the anecdotes. I thus looked for a way of getting data on attendance, because that seemed to be the only thing that could be measured in a straightforward way that did not rely on self-reporting. I am told that there are no published multiple-course results on objectively measured attendance to rely on.

But in designing such a study there were some very important considerations. We did not want to bias the sample. We did not want individual students to be tracked or in any way identified. And we did not want the results to be used for the purpose of evaluating the teachers. We wanted to know if we could get valid evidence on attendance, and we wanted to see if there were any patterns in the data that might support conclusions about whether or not we should care.

The protocol was sent to the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research—this is the Institutional Review Board, the group responsible for deciding if research uses human subjects and reviewing that use to make sure that they are line with regulations—which concluded that the study did not constitute human-subjects research. It thus did not go to the full committee for review. The protocol was to install a camera that snapped an image of the audience in a lecture hall every minute. The images were processed through a program that counted whether seats were empty or filled. The quantities were calculated for each lecture. Once the data was in hand I made appointments, beginning in August, with course heads (two are still outstanding) to tell them what had been done and to show them generalized numerical data on their respective classes. At that time I ordered that images of students be destroyed. The course heads were asked to decide what should happen next. The course head could choose to have the numerical data removed from the study and deleted permanently. The data could be maintained without identifying the course. The data could be maintained with the identity of the course. There could be discussions with the researcher to better understand the data and consider ways of improving outcomes if so desired.

I can report that every single person I met with thought the data was interesting and potentially useful, agreed to the use of the data keeping the identity of the course, and was interested in learning more about the research. Faculty do care about their classes and their students.

The analysis did reveal patterns in the data (patterns that made sense once they were found). The results of the analysis are being shared with course heads. The aggregated data, without identifying courses, has been presented at Harvard to people interested in teaching and learning issues. Here I will only note that there was great variability in attendance.

I do understand the concern with faculty control, but ultimately course heads did have control over the data on students in their classes. Yet this has certainly raised questions about studies involving students that might not be set up to avoid identifying students. For that reason the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research will automatically contact the Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education in regard to studies that involve undergraduate students.

President Faust—who had been through the bruising revelations about e-mail investigations during the review of academic misconduct, and who charged the Barron task force in response—said she took the issues Lewis raised seriously, and would refer them to the oversight committee on electronic communications policy established under the task force for exploration, comment, and recommendations on further policy changes as warranted.

Unmollified, professor of German Peter Burgard said the incident constituted “spying on students and faculty without telling them." Another faculty member said that professors who taught knew a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of their lecture courses—and suggested that if the provost wished to learn more about the issues, it would be productive to discuss the matter with the faculty, rather than “outside it.”

Although it did not come up in the exchanges during the faculty meeting, Lewis is in fact a early adopter of "flipping" a course (described in his "Reinventing the Classroom"): recording his lectures for students to view before they appear in class, and then focusing there on identifying and addressing difficult material, and working on problems in teams, to master the content. In his own remarks during the September HILT conference, Bol (who has now used an online HarvardX version of the Chinese history survey course he co-teaches to modify those classes on campus) observed that MIT students objected to pioneering flipped classrooms precisely because they made it necessary to show up for course meetings. Both examples perhaps point to the faculty-led work, inside classrooms, that have effected changes in teaching.

With that—presentation of an issue that most faculty members had not known about, and the suggestion that procedures and policies might be revised before future, similar research proceeds—discussion concluded, as the faculty turned to other business, including the major issue of the day: opposition to the change in health benefits.

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