Stripling, J. (2010) Video killed the faculty star Inside Higher Education, November 18
This is an article about three different lecturers in three different universities being ‘caught on camera’ and publicly lampooned. Although initially amusing to read (unless you were one of the lecturers) the article does raise some serious issues. Particularly troubling is the selective editing by a right wing group of a lecture at Louisiana State University where the professor divided students into opposing sides on the climate change debate then challenged each side to defend their position. The right wing group then selectively edited just his challenge to the anti-climate change group, claiming that he intimidated those who didn’t agree with him and that he was ‘biased.’
Incidentally, this is nothing new. In the early days of the British Open University in the 1970s, an economics lecturer was explaining in the accompanying BBC broadcast television program the difference between Adam Smith’s and Karl Marx’s economic theories. Sir Keith Joseph, the then Minister for universities in the Conservative government, happened to see the latter half of the program (about Marxist economics) and threatened to cut the Open University’s budget if it did not stop ‘preaching communism.’
There is no way these days to stop the recording of lectures, and anyone with very limited knowledge could edit and disseminate the result via YouTube. In the climate change lecture, the recording was made by someone who wasn’t even in the class. It has long been a convention in many institutions that university lectures are open to the public. However, if this privilege – and it is a privilege – is abused, it will have a chilling effect on free speech.
I make this point, because having seen the movie ‘Social Network’, there is a tendency for some to believe that if something exists, it exists without a context and is fair game for social media. Thus if I have a friend who is gay or lesbian, and I communicate this fact over the Internet to another friend that I trust, someone like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook would believe that he has every right to intercept that piece of information and sell it to someone. The same thinking seems to apply to using video recordings of lectures, then remixing and remashing them out of context. This seems to me just as unethical as stealing from someone’s purse and possibly more damaging.
The question then is what to do about it. Banning phones or cameras from a classroom isn’t in my view the answer. What is needed is education, probably starting in elementary school, about ethical behaviour in a digital society, within a broader context of digital education and the use of digital media in the classroom. However, that’s a long term solution. In the short term, institutions should have a clear code of conduct about social media behaviour, and crack down heavily on people who breach it. For people who come in from outside the university and misrepresent what goes on in a lecture hall, the normal slander and libel laws apply, and should be enforced. At least there will be witnesses as to what really happened. (One of the many things that shocked me in the movie ‘Social Network’ was the way the President of Harvard washed his hands of any responsibility for dealing with unethical behaviour by students). And lastly, good on the lecturer who cracked down on a student yawning loudly in his class. But maybe he should move his course online – it might be more interesting.
I’d really like to hear your views on this. Am I being unreasonably moral about this issue or does it disturb you as well? Should there be a code of conduct for the use social media by students, staff and university ‘guests’ and if so what should it look like? Or should we just hang loose and let the devil take the hindmost?