Opinion: Carolina Beat

Cell Phone Education

Technological changes have a way of creating new possibilities, but also new problems.

Cell phones have evolved to the point where they can be used to make excellent audio and visual reproductions of events. Consider an occurrence last February at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. In an introductory sociology class, the instructor invited in a guest lecturer, Eyon Biddle.

Biddle is the director of organizing in Milwaukee for the Service Employees International Union. His talk turned into a harangue about the evils caused by Republicans, whom Biddle excoriated as being racist, classist, homophobic, and dishonest. A student used his cell phone to record it.

Some people thought the problem here was that a professor had wasted students’ time with a guest speaker entirely unqualified to speak in an academic setting. Others, however, thought the problem was that the student made the recording.

Key among the latter group was the Whitewater administration, which has moved to ban the use of cell phones to record what goes on in classrooms. The faculty senate has approved a ban, and chancellor Richard Telfer has indicated his support, saying, “Faculty on this campus have the right to establish the policies for their individual classrooms.”

Like most free speech and communication issues, the cell phone recording controversy has a lot of “gray area.” Colleges are struggling to find the best way to respond.

Some schools have adopted rules about recordings, and most are taking a restrictive stance. The University of Virginia’s policy prohibits “recording and transmission of classroom lectures and discussions by students, unless written permission from the class instructor has been obtained and all students in the class as well as guest speakers have been informed that audio/video recording may occur.”

Even with consent, a recording may be used only “for the purposes of individual or group study with other students enrolled in the same class.” And lest there be any doubt, recordings “may not be reproduced or uploaded to publicly accessible web environments.”

Rutgers University also has wrestled with this issue. A faculty senate study reported, “For some students, the knowledge that they are being taped may have a chilling effect on their willingness to ask questions or participate in discussions.”

That might be true. The way statements can spread on the Internet with potentially harmful consequences, it certainly is possible that some students would refrain from speaking up in class if they thought that their comments might come back to haunt them on social media.

Faculty members also might change their behavior if they know they’re being recorded. Consider the trouble a professor might find himself in if he used the “devil’s advocate” approach in class to challenge students.

College dean and former professor Matt Reed explains that he often tried to generate controversy and stimulate student thinking by making the case for ideas he didn’t believe. Reed writes, “I shudder to think what could have happened if some student had recorded and distributed five well-chosen minutes of a presentation on communism or fascism. Out of context, it could have looked awful.”

There seem to be sound reasons for limiting or even prohibiting recordings in class. But there are also reasons that pull the other way.

In the UW-Whitewater case, without the ability to record, all the student could have done would have been to jot down some of what the speaker said. Without the clear evidence a recording provides, it would be almost impossible for a student to lodge a complaint that would “stick” when a professor or guest speaker goes into a harangue.

Like most free speech issues, this one isn’t black or white.

George Leef is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.