Jim Fanning: The digital panopticon

I came across this article on the Futurelab site in which Jim Fanning, an Assistant Headteacher of a secondary school discusses the use of VLEs in schools. I’ve read a lot about VLEs in HE and FE, but it seems that while VLE use may be on the wane in the tertiary educational sector, it could be on the rise in schools. But there some interesting challenges around using VLEs in our schools.

In the article Jim compares a VLE with a panopticon. If like me you’ve never heard the word before, Jim explains that it’s an idea proposed by the nineteenth century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, who was interested in prison reform.

A panopticon is:

“a prison building made up of many cells arranged around a central observation platform, from which one warden could supervise numerous prisoners at the same time. The inmates did not know when the wardens were present.”

So how does a panopticon relate to a learning environment?

Jim argues that:

“Despite the potential for learning platforms to herald a paradigm shift in teaching and learning, in the rush to adopt them schools may end up creating their very own digital panopticon, with the technology being used to monitor and control learning, rather than liberate it from the four walls of the classroom.”

One dimension of VLE use in schools that is just not an issue in HE, is that is some cases parents are encouraged to use VLEs to monitor “post lesson and homework tasks”. There is a real danger that pupils will view the learning environment as a monitoring surveillance tool which belongs to the system. Schools will have to be really creative in their use of VLEs to ensure that this doesn’t happen.