Multi-layered Monitoring in Virtual Learning Environments: Filling the Policy Vacuum

Mike Leigh and Mary Prior


In recent years there has been a huge expansion in the use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) in academic institutions. ‘E-learning’ and ‘blended learning’ seek to enhance the learning experience of students in higher education and to help address the different learning styles of students. However, in the enthusiasm of higher education institutions and their staff to implement e-learning technologies, has their ethical dimension been overlooked? In particular, this paper examines whether there are monitoring and surveillance issues that should be considered, and proposes some good practice guidelines to help fill the policy vacuum in this area.

The growth in the use of VLEs has been accompanied by an increasing number of publications and conferences that address technological and pedagogic issues. However, less attention has been given to the ethical dimension of the use of technology in education. Jefferies et al [2007] explore the relationships between technology, pedagogy and ethics, raising a number of issues, including privacy and data protection, and the power relationship between tutor and student. An early survey of the student perspective also raised the issue of privacy, alongside surveillance and the cost to the student of the use of technology [Stahl, 2002].

There is a considerable literature on electronic monitoring in the workplace, and the issues to which this can give rise. These range from concerns about employees’ privacy and autonomy [Brey 1999, Moore 2000, Hartman 2001] to effects on health [Smith et al. 1992, Aiello, 1993, Aiello & Kolb, 1995]. Other research found employees to be relatively unconcerned about the privacy aspects of ‘surveillance-capable technologies’ in the workplace [Mason et al. 2002]. Furthermore, employees and their managers are also capable of collaborating to meet the organisation’s goals, whether this means using the monitoring/surveillance systems or finding ways to apparently ‘subvert’ them [ibid.].

This paper, firstly, reviews the e-learning literature to support the contention that to date only limited attention has been paid to the ethical issues arising from the use of VLEs. Secondly, it provides an overview of the ethical issues raised by electronic surveillance in the workplace, and discusses their relevance to the world of virtual learning. Thus, a comparison between the use of a VLE within a higher education institution, and electronic workplace monitoring, is provided. Thirdly, the paper reports the outcome of a study undertaken in a UK university. The study involves a survey of student attitudes to the monitoring of their activities via a VLE, using a questionnaire, followed by the use of focus groups to pursue students’ views in more depth. This is supported by a series of structured interviews with members of academic staff to determine their use of the monitoring facilities within the VLE, and their awareness of how this may be used in turn to monitor their own activities.

Some of the ethical issues related to VLE use may be similar to those raised by electronic workplace monitoring. For example, privacy may be a concern to both employees and students, and function creep is a potential threat in both contexts. Expecting students to engage with activities centred on the VLE may restrict learning opportunities and could lead to a narrow, quantitative view of student learning and participation. The same narrow measures may be applied to academic staff, to judge their compliance with institutional e-learning strategies. Indeed, as one incident reported by Jefferies et al [2007] indicates, a VLE offers the opportunity for not only internal managers, but also external quality assessors, to have access to tutor-staff interactions. This presents the prospect of multiple layers of monitoring, where academic staff who can monitor student activities are in turn monitored by institutional managers and external auditors. Undue reliance on one set of quantitative measures of performance can result in judgements being made on a narrow basis, and can have the effect of forcing those monitored to behave in a certain way.

There are in existence ‘good practice’ guidelines for employers concerning the use of electronic monitoring, but there appears to have been little, if any, attention to this aspect of VLEs.

This paper explores these and other issues raised by the empirical work with students and staff. It presents some ‘good practice’ guidelines for the ethical use of VLEs in higher education, particularly with respect to its potential for monitoring and surveillance. It is expected to be of interest to academic staff involved in delivering higher education courses, academic managers and those responsible for the design and deployment of VLEs.


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