24 June 2008

Coercive Technology

(long and only marginally coherent yet again - don't worry, the next post is better)
the original clicker post, linked badly in the IHE comments, is at "instant anachronism"

Towards the end of the most recent Inside Higher Ed battle over clickers in the classroom a fascinating battle broke out among Southern California academics.

Dr. Frederica Shockley, Professor of Economics at Chico State University, jumped to my baited comment regarding the idea that if clickers increased attendance (through mandatory use), electronic monitoring ankle bracelets might do the same. "I ask multiple-choice questions, but I also ask a lot of numeric questions," she wrote. "If 25% or more do not answer correctly, I go over the material again. I don’t go over as many chapters, but my students seldom ask me to slow down, and students are making more A’s and B’s. The questions and the students’ responses often become the catalyst for interesting class discussions. Clickers are an additional expense for students, but apparently many of my students think that the benefits outweigh the cost. In an end of the semester survey 70% said that they would prefer taking a class using clickers than a class not using clickers. About 30% of my students prefer a class without clickers because they have to attend class in order to get a good grade on their clicker responses. I do believe that California taxpayers who subsidize my students prefer that they attend class, and clickers are far cheaper than ankle bracelets."

Which brought out "LogicGuru" - who seems to be Dr. H.E. Baber of the Department of Philosophy at the University of San Diego.

Dr. Baber acknowledges teaching at "a private college" (though that hardly suggests that it is unsubsidized by the government - private colleges in the US benefit from, among other things, not paying taxes, having their tuition paid through subsidized federal loans, and copious research grants), and then goes on to say, "If they want to come to class and participate to get their money’s worth that’s their business. If they want to waste their money and get lousy grades, that’s their decision. I don’t take the roll, I don’t use clickers and I have no interest in locking on ankle bracelets: I’m a professor not a cop.

"We provide a resource—classroom teaching, individual help, advising, a good academic library, technology and all the facilities they need to learn and do well. If students are motivated, I’ll give them everything they want—I’ll talk to them, work with them as long as they want, see them on weekends, correspond with them by email, and do everything I can do to help them achieve their goals. If they’re not motivated, I will not bully them, impose attendance requirements on them, or make any attempt to motivate them. They’re adults and it’s their decision."

Dr. Shockley fires back: "I agree with Professor LogicGuru at Private College when he or she says that he or she is not obligated to taxpayers. However, I am in a different situation, and I believe my expectation that students attend class is entirely reasonable. If you think requiring clickers is equivalent to “browbeating” my students, how do you explain the fact that 70% of them would prefer to take another class with clickers than without? Are 70% of my students masochistic?"

And Dr. Baber answers: "Masochism isn’t the issue, Shockley. At least 70% of my students would prefer not to got to college at all if they could get well-paying middle class jobs without it. That’s not my business. I don’t care what my student’s want or what makes them feel good. They have a requirement to meet which, I believe, is legitimate. If they want their working papers they’ve got to satisfy that requirement. I’ll do everything I can to help them but I will not do anything to motivate them. I do my job and they do theirs. They’re grown-ups and make choices."

Then, Dr. Ellis Godard, a Sociology Professor at CSUN (California State University – Northridge) jumps in: "I pity the students of LogicGuru, who doesn’t care what they want and “will not do anything to motivate them". Like it or not, teaching is a performance; if you weed out all that’s entertaining and motivating, you might be left with some incredibly dry (dare I say, boring) presentations. You can discount their reactions as not your business — but if your business is teaching, you might consider whether they’d learn more, more readily, and more permanently if they were motivated. And if you think all of the motivation is to come from the material itself, regardless of performance elements, that alone may explain why 70% of your students don’t want to come. I probably wouldn’t either."

I was entertained by this explosion among academics willing to identify themselves (rare in this setting), but I thought it was also remarkably revealing. And when I read back through the debate, the revelations came in bunches.

Obviously, Dr. Shockley sees herself as an arm of the state. It is her job to build a compliant workforce. That is why the state pays her. That is her job. Thus, when she uses technology she will do so to reinforce the values the state determines are important - attendance, punctuality, responding when asked to respond.

Dr. Baber sees his job differently because he sees a different master. He is there to offer a service to the students. It is a simple service - sort of a fraternity initiation. Do what I ask and you get the credential you need. He suggests, I think accurately, that there is little connection between this initiation process and the jobs his students seek. And thus he makes the decision that he will help if he can, but he will not coerce. When he uses technology it will be as one more way for students to access the things they will choose to access.

Dr. Godard has yet another vision of the faculty's function in the world. He is there to persuade, to convince, to evangelize. His purpose is more deeply 'religious,' he is paid to convert. When he uses technology he will do it to inspire, to entertain, to seize attention - in exactly the same way that medieval Catholics used the technology of the great cathedrals.

So, in the clicker controversy, two of these professors are on one side but for differing reasons. One is on the other. And while, if I peruse the three professors websites, I will likely find that I am more likely to politically agree with Dr. Godard and even Dr. Shockley before I'd fall in line with Dr. Baber, in the end I have to agree with Dr. Baber's thoughts here. Not because I like his attitude toward his job, but because he is the only one not being actively coercive.

There are lots of ways to use contemporary technologies. We can inform, communicate, engage, break though barriers - and we can also do other things. I watched a BBC News story this week which documented how local councils in the United Kingdom seem to be watching almost every bit of human behavior with their CCTV cameras. George W. Bush feels perfectly within his rights to open your mail without a search warrant. Employers spy on employees. Parents spy on kids. Spouses spy on spouses. Companies tempt you to do stupid things with flashing links on their websites. As Michael Bugeja tries to say - every technology has its purposes, good and bad.

So let me throw out two anecdotes:

(1) If you're a long time reader you know I spent a chunk of my life in police work. After I quit and ended up in small Midwestern American town, I noticed something. Each morning I'd drive past the town's school. And at least three mornings a week a cop would be hidden somewhere along this stretch of road - the only route out of the town. He'd be in a driveway behind large shrubs. He'd be in an abandoned gas station hidden by the old pumps. He'd be on the grass of a park between two large trees. In each case his radar would be on.

Eventually I asked the town's police chief (he and I coached sports on adjoining fields), "Wouldn't it be a better school zone speed control if the guy was just parked in front of the school as obviously as possible?" "Well, probably," he admitted, "but I guess he'd rather catch people." I laughed. I think I said something about how most police agencies embraced a slogan something like "to serve and protect," and very few painted "to enforce and imprison" on the sides of their vehicles - though the reality often seemed different.

So there is guidance: "I'm sitting here in my police car to remind you that there are children crossing the street and you should drive slowly and carefully." And there is coercion: "I am going to force you comply be threatening you with randomly applied harm."

We could make classes more engaging and involving. We could make the education either more apparently relevant or more valuable in its own right. Or we can force you into compliance with digital monitoring.

(2) I sat near the departure gate in O'Hare's International Terminal waiting for the 7:00 pm overnight to Dublin and laughing with a friend about security screening. We'd just watched the intense examination of the shoes of a six-month-old child. A TSA worker sat nearby. "You wouldn't believe," she interrupted us to say, "what people hide in their babies' stuff." "Bombs?" I asked. "Weapons?" "No," she said, "but all kinds of things, like bigger bottles of shampoo or sunscreen."

Yes, that is why the US government spends billions on airport security. That is why travellers are routinely inconvenienced and harassed. We must prevent excessive amounts of sunscreen from being carried onto our planes. I could have told the TSA worker that I bet that if we took a vote in this terminal right now, 95% would rather save the airport fees which pay for security, and would rather get through security faster and with less hassle, even if that meant contraband sunscreen on board. Honestly, 95% would probably feel the same way even it that meant contraband cocaine on board. Because the only reason we put up with this nonsense is that we do not want to get killed.

All the rest is "mission creep." We're protecting you, and while we're protecting you we will also pursue a vast assortment of our own agendas. This is the idea that simply because we can do something, we should. We can watch for neighborhood crime, but we'll also check out who might be sunbathing topless. We can look for terrorist chatter, but we'll also see who might be buying things and avoiding sales tax or VAT. We can protect our children on their way to school, but we'll also notice who is bringing their child across school district or LEA boundaries.

We can filter the internet, so we should. We can monitor or teenager's whereabouts, so we should. We can drive attendance with clickers, so we should. We can compel some kind of cursory night-before-class reading with clicker quizzes, so we should.

I think coercive technology design is a problem in a number of ways.
  • When we filter the internet we stop teaching responsibility, respect, discretion, and appropriate use.
  • When we force students to attend anonymous lectures through clicker-use grading, we eliminate any incentive for the instructor to actually make the course worth attending, and any incentive for the student to do any more than show up.
  • When we monitor our adolescents continually we actually prevent their ability to develop judgment.
  • When we overstep our security mandates we drive activity deeply underground and push those activities further from social controls (this is true when we stop teens from drinking on a street corner - wouldn't we rather have them there then driving out into the woods where no one can see? and it is true of internet limitations in libraries - in the town I now live dozens of teens are on-line in any coffee shop but almost none in the public library: the library filters access to many innocuous sites and will not let anyone under 18 use the wireless system)
  • When we use our technology principally as an entertainment system (even a really bad entertainment system like PowerPoint), we contribute to the notion of learning as a passive activity.
  • When we insist on a single technological solution independent of student need and comfort, we are simply substituting one form of tyranny for another. If the printed book caused problems for a 1/3 of the population, requiring that everything always be in digital form will also likely cause problems for 1/3 of the population (a different third, of course).
Technology can help transform education. I absolutely believe that. But in order to transform education technology must be democratically employed. It must open access, add choices, increase opportunities, improve flexibility. If it does not do that, if it is employed in pursuit of 'efficiency' and coercion, it will instead lock all of our current failures in place.

The comments on the Inside Higher Ed article demonstrate this pattern. One side doubts the value of the lecture course as a pedagogical system, and the other side insists that the clicker makes the lecture course just-enough-better to justify its continued existence. The clicker enforces (a) attendance, (b) reading, (c) response. It makes lectures "measurably" more palatable. Reading these you'd have to wonder exactly how terrible these courses were before being "improved" by the clicker. No, you won't, we've all sat through them. We know.

Back when I first took on this clicker issue, I quoted a friend, "We had a demo of our clicker system at the [institution where he works], and it was magical how people felt empowered by having any input in a classroom at all. It was demoed with a class full of teachers, and they were so energized it was sad to see, because it shows how used they are to being passive vessels in learning. It is clearly a transitional technology, and a more politic guy would have found a way to say that, rather than jumping in their face. But that's why America needs you."

I'm not sure that America needs me, but I do think that America does need to think about how technology can change education, and not how technology can prevent education from changing.

- Ira Socol

Worth reading: Education in Finland (relating to the link above on internet filtering). Goldfish on Privilege - One and Two. Patricia Donaghy on PDF Xchange.

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book


Rufus said...

You might enjoy a book that my friend Justin Gorman wrote about compulsory education. It's free here:

Anonymous said...

I am a college student who thinks the clickers would be great to have in classes! I just completed a class where the instructor took attendance AND expected us to read the book and contribute the knowledged gleened from that reading during lectures. It was the best taught class I have ever attended.

In every class there are a few people who can and want to answer all of the questions in class. I think it would have been beneficial to have some way of demonstrating that I knew at least as many answers as those few who did. It is also probable that the feedback the student gets from answering questions with a clicker is beneficial to the learning process as well.

I know from experience that classes where student involvement is encouraged are the classes I learn the most from. It sounds like 70% of the students who used the clickers agree.

irasocol said...

'College Student' raises some important issues:

There are the big questions: (a) Are college students adults in control of their own learning? Or are they best treated as middle school age kids where behaviors are set for them? (b) Should students be in college if they are not interested in reading the books or attending class? Or should we have alternative forms of post-secondary education for those not interested in that "liberal arts core"? (c) Is education a competition ("In every class there are a few people who can and want to answer all of the questions in class. I think it would have been beneficial to have some way of demonstrating that I knew at least as many answers as those few who did.")? Or is education something which does not require comparisons?

There are the smaller questions, including: (d) What exactly is the norm for student engagement at this student's college? (Sounds like it is typically zero.)

And, of course, there are technical questions, beginning with: (e) If this is really a good idea wouldn't it be even better if it was much cheaper, allowed real interaction, and wasn't based in antiquated disposable technology?

- Ira Socol

Melinda Pongrey, MSEd said...

Ira - Have you taken a class that required clickers? When did these come in? This is new to me...Melinda

Cheri said...

I think you missed my point (in anonymous above). I really think this technology would make larger classes more interesting and engaging, and telecommunications classes might really benefit from a technology like this. The clickers allow for quick answers. Typing long answers into a cell phone would be disruptive and time consuming. All technology becomes quickly outdated. If the technology is useful, it evolves, updates and upgrades.

But that wasn't your main gripe about clickers. You see them as coercive. Teachers have many ways to ensure students show up for class. Many include attendence points in the syllabus, and pop quizzes. Is that too coercive? If we updated the technology and used cell phones instead of clickers, would they be any less coercive?

Your questions aren't new. Teachers everywhere, no matter how old their students are, complain a lot about how lazy students are these days and how none of them want to learn anymore. There will always be people who like to slack in all walks of life, and I am old enough to know that it's always been that way. Perhaps our country would be better off not even trying to educate our future citizens? I hope my answers help. a) I don't think teachers need to babysit college students. Most of the students I go to college with attend class regularly (although some do seem to spend a lot of time TMing their friends all through class). I am a 44 year old non-traditional student 6 credits shy of my bachelors degree, maintaining a 3.8 gpa while taking care of my adult autistic son, so I definitely don't need a sitter. b) There is more to learning than just being interested and engaged. Most people don't know how to learn appropriately because they aren't taught the necessary study skills in high school. Most don't know how to navigate through a text book, let alone glean it for what they need to know. I buy used books and see how they get highlighted - it's a sad commentary on our educational system. c) Whether you (or I) like it or not, education is a competition. Everything in life is a competition. It starts in kindergarten when every child wants to be teacher's favorite. It never ends and will never end as long as we live in a capitalistic society. They don't give great scholarships to students who don't excel at something, and not as many students as you might think get a free ride through school. The teacher I spoke of made sure to give everyone who wanted to participate a chance. It made the class interesting. I was one of the few who usually knew the answer and volunteered to speak. Some people are afraid of looking stupid in front of their peers. They will not answer a question unless they know for sure they won't say the wrong thing. Some people are like that. A device that allows a person like that to respond anonymously would be very helpful, don't you think?

d) This particular class was awesome and demanding. In my studies I have found that really good teachers who know how to elicit participation are in the majority, but I have had teachers who like to listen to themselves talk. It is a state run school with a good reputation, and I feel I am getting a good educaiton.

e) Cheaper devices would be better; cheaper books would be better; and lower tuition would be better. I pay whatever price it takes to learn what I need to learn. I really like the idea of a multiple choice check, as long as it also occurs along side verbal participation. The teacher can keep track of how well the students are learning and what reteaching needs to be done in real, ongoing time. Most don't know until the tests are scored. Like I said before, typing in long questions would be too disruptive and time consuming. Students should be taking notes in class so that they can answer the big questions on tests.

Sometimes simple technology is enough. Newer and bigger doesn't always equal better.

irasocol said...


Thanks for responding, thanks for un-anonymizing. I appreciate your passion but I wonder if you are trying to fix the problems you describe with the cause of the problems you describe.

It is not an original thought of mine that coercive educational strategies (be they technological or not) breed sheep and not independent thinking humans capable of managing their own learning. The students you describe - who have not learned how to study, or work in class, or work in groups - are like this because the coercive structure of their schools encourages that failure. When coercion is the dominant mode of control it removes all incentive for self-regulation from the learner, and all incentive to provide better 'instruction' from the 'teacher.' The locus of control has become completely external. When American secondary students describe their schools as being indistinguishable from prisons, this is what they are describing.

There are so many ways to build the engagement you are seeking, to expect students to do the best they can, to allow anonymity when necessary, to encourage across-the-board participation. But the best ways to do this offer students choices so that they can build strategies that will help them function everywhere, not just in the classroom. Coercion doesn't do that. Coercion turns the whole thing into a game of prisoners and guards. When I watched a woman pull seven clickers out of her backpack in a lecture three months ago - answering (and getting attendance points) for all of her friends, I was watching that game play out exactly as it always will.

Two more points. You say, "typing in long questions would be too disruptive and time consuming." Sorry, I disagree. I think that we always need to make time for student questions and student answers, especially the unanticipated questions and answers. If we don't, education might as well be simply presented as a one-way video feed. The only reason - in my opinion - that we pay people to teach in our society is so they can meet learners where they are and help them get to where they need to go. But that teacher has no idea where there learners are if they shield themselves from the unanticipated reaction through multiple choice.

And, on competition? There's that old joke: "Q: What do you call the person who graduated last in his class at medical school? A: Doctor." (we could update it, "Q: What do you call the person who graduated last in his class at Yale? A: President Bush.") You are right, the US has a miserable capitalist system, but competition in schools is not the answer. Schools which seek to provide every student with what they need are the answer. You cannot both divide students into successes and failures at every turn and then claim that "No Child [is] Left Behind."

- Ira Socol

irasocol said...


One prof attempted to bring these into one class. I left. I figure, at this level of my education, if I'm being offered multiple choice, I'm out the door.

But at the undergrad level they are everywhere there is a lecture hall (outside of those "elite" schools), and they are spreading rapidly into K-12. Districts which still won't spend the money to comply with accessibility laws are wasting that cash instead on this nonsense (which, of course, makes their schools even less accessible, while encouraging "teaching-by-PowerPoint").

That might be because resistance to the clickers is growing at many universities, so the companies peddling these systems are shifting their profit focus toward the least sophisticated tech decision makers on the planet - the US K-12 school board. They can usually be ripped of for price of a good lunch and a fancy brochure.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

ira said: (b) Should students be in college if they are not interested in reading the books or attending class? Or should we have alternative forms of post-secondary education for those not interested in that "liberal arts core"?

this is the point i personally am most interested in. i always viewed large lectures as on par with learning from a book or video. small group discussion led by graduate student teaching assistants was usually lacking as these people aren't usually experienced teachers who know how to guide/get the best out of the students in their discussion groups. my daughters are in middle school now, but as i look to the future for them, i would like to find apprenticeship type learning in whatever field they choose. i think that exists now to a certain extent, but it is definitely something i need to research more.

irasocol said...


Generally, the lecture course is exactly like reading a book on your own, or, if you have a great instructor, like watching something on Discovery or The History Channel. The only reason to do it "in school" rather than "outside of school" is that schools control credentials.

And, at "Research Universities" few, if any, of those "teaching" (be they faculty or grad students) will have been hired or promoted for their teaching abilities. That doesn't mean there are not great teachers in those places, but it might suggest that they are rare.

But there are choices. Including apprenticeship type environments, and collaborative type environments (see Evergreen State College, College of the Atlantic) and real communities of scholars (see St. John's in Annapolis and Santa Fe). There is also the idea of "getting out" for a year or two or three. Not going to university right away.

There's a reason students like Cheri above tend to do much better. They've been outside. They know what matters to them. They've learned better self-advocacy skills. And they are at university because they've decided to go, rather than because it is what they are expected to do (coming back to that question of internal rather than external control).

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...


off topic

short extraneous/nit-picky comment:

who has been putting all that pre-post disclaimer/warning (past 4 posts or so) additive in your breakfast cereal?

irasocol said...


Good question. Nothing like grad school to destroy one's self-confidence in one's communication capabilities.

I'll stop.

- Ira

Anonymous said...

Your posts and the comments people submit are giving me more energy for researching my field than i think i've ever had. so keep up the good work. ;]

Anonymous said...

Ira, thanks for this.

Your point about who the 'master' is is very nice. Education is an expensive and elaborate social undertaking. It would be bizarre to expect that to happen without some 'payoff' in terms of social functionality. You're quite right that both lecture and motivational pandering produce students who are used to waiting for others to tell them what to do and what to be interested in (along with all the resistance games to that). Those are the sorts of people who can staff middle management without going nuts.

There's not a lot of demand in the economy for independent critical thinkers and it's more than amply supplied. We might well argue that critical thinking is a more accomplished humanity, but this argument has little cash value and it's not clear who should be expected to pay for it (our salaries, dontcha know) in a market economy.

That said, I have high expectations for my students, engage them as people whenever they'll let me, try to meet them half way on interest and motivation, and hope that 'mine' will be among those few who get to do critical thinking for a living.