The new frontiers of monitoring your students

I doubt I was the only person who was surprised to encounter this initiative from University of Buckingham. Driven by their vice-chancellor Anthony Seldon, an educationalist who grew up surrounded by the neoliberal revolution, it invites students to opt-in to the monitoring of their social media profiles in order to track the efficacy of the university’s positive psychology initiatives. This is how the Evening Standard describes the project:

Buckingham students will be asked to opt in to having their comments on social media monitored. Research from University of Pennsylvania found that these posts are more honest indicators of a person’s mental state than asking them to complete a questionnaire.

The social media posts will be anonymised and then run through algorithms to detect positive or negative emotions. This will enable staff to measure the effectiveness of the university’s 10-point action plan.

This includes commitments to “maximise understanding of the psychological needs” of students, nurture a sense of belonging, provide every student with a student “buddy” and tackle lad culture. Staff will not be alerted if a student starts to post messages of concern.

“If somebody is suicidal, we will not be able to find out,” Sir Anthony said.

I’m surprised by how easily positive psychology (with its neo-Aristotelian tenor) can be rendered compatible with learning analytics (with its behaviouristic approach). But what’s most interesting about this is how it might normalise a degree of monitoring which would formally have proved unthinkable. It’s certainly responding to a real problem, one which has been developing for some time. This Guardian piece from 2014 identifies some of the key factors at work here:

University support services have been squeezed for resources – this may be partly due to reductions in staffing, posts being frozen, or not being increased to accommodate the enormous growth in students requiring their services.

Research shows that students who have experienced counselling feel that they were well-supported, both in terms of academic achievement and their overall student experience and future employability.

But the ability of university counselling and mental health services to support ever-rising numbers of clients with increased levels of distress is limited by their resources.

Most services have to restrict what they offer to individual students so that they can support the high numbers who need them, especially during peak times before exams and deadlines.

It is not the role of university wellbeing services, however excellent, to replace the specialised care that the NHS should provide to students with mental illnesses.

I’d like to withhold further judgement until I have properly read through the details of the scheme as released by the University of Buckingham. But it’s hard not to wonder if this is a forerunner of a future style of management in the university. Responding to real problems, with roots both in the institution and wider society, through technical forms of monitoring and intervention focused on the individual behaviour of students and staff. The money going into learning analytics and educational technology at the moment would certainly create the conditions for this to flourish, as would the cultural prioritisation of them by management and the growing influence of behavioural science within university administrative circles in the UK.

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