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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

May 13, 2010

Privacy, transparency and why you must know what I'm looking at on the web

Transparency is one of the most popular recent buzzwords in Japan- one of those imported motifs which is assumed to side with a progressive and enlightened society. After all, a society in which public officials can be held up to public scrutiny, where the taxpayers have the right to access public data, makes for accountable leadership. This is an increasingly common feature of Japanese universities as well , particularly those (like mine) in the public sector.

Unfortunately the notion of transparency can run counter to another concept cherished by stable, modern societies which is gaining increasing currency in Japanese public policy making- privacy. You see, although Joe Taxpayer is paying my salary, he (or his wife, Jane Taxpayer) may have the right to know how their hard-earned taxes (have you ever noticed how tax money is always 'hard-earned'? Isn't easily made money taxed?) are being used, but it doesn't follow that allowing access to all public records is in the best interest of that same public. The police are on the public payroll but that doesn't mean you can just saunter into the 5th Precinct and start rummaging through crime scene evidence.

I understand that there has to be a balance- after all there should be ways of checking and confirming that I am not using my kaken-hi (grant-in-aid) funds to purchase backrubs from nubile 19 year old aerobics instructors. But I don't like the sense of John Q. Public breathing down my neck or looking over my shoulder. I'm a little unnerved by having too much of my daily work visible for public consumption. Whatever grade I gave to Taro Yamada (or his wife, Jane Yamada) is between me, Taro, and relevant university officials. I think everyone would agree with this. Likewise, Hanako Watanabe's transcripts should be accessible only a limited number of officials and even fellow teachers should offer a legitimate reason to access the info. Again, I don't expect much argument here.

But what about my course syllabus? Or my class evaluation methods/system? Sure, students should be able to access these (although they in fact almost never do) but I fear revealing too much to John Q. (who, it must be said, is getting a little too big-headed about his being my 'boss' these days). The problem is that data can be abused, misused and misunderstood when available in the public forum. Data regarding the number of students who don't graduate in the standard 4 or 6 years might in fact be due to stricter criteria being used in some faculties (e.g. medicine) but it could (and often is) willfully (?) misinterpreted as representing poor teaching skills or unconcerned faculty in the media or, these days, in blogs.

And then there are all those miscreants, ne'er do wells, and just plain wingnuts with personal or institutional vendettas who scour this type of thing to launch 'claims' ("Hmmm. Guest is required to present a detailed 14 week syllabus but I see only thirteen general lesson plans listed. The university is being slipshod! Maybe I can pry some compensation from them for my emotional distress. And there's the old truck outside with the loudspeakers. I haven't fired up that baby in a while").

Although I understand that my educational history and research focus should be available to Victoria J. Anybody (or her wife, Jane) I do have worries about big brother scrutiny by self-appointed public watchdogs- interestingly, the very opposite mode of oppression that Orwell wrote about. "It seems that according to Guest's publicly accessible web log that he checked Yahoo's Stanley Cup playoff scores for 6 minutes. And on the public lam!", or "So, Guest stayed at the Hotel Puberty on his business trip to Singapore. Well I found a youth hostel on the net for a third of that price. And what about that Oatmeal Stout and India Pale Ale he drank? Were those included in his per diem?". Or the fact that I am writing this blog post while at work and using uncooth phrases such as 'nubile 19 year bold aerobics instructor' (Humorless self-appointed vigilante morality police readers might want to note that this blog is hosted by an educational organization so I can do this at my workplace without compunction- nyah nyah).

The most visceral problem though is that increased transparency increases the amount of work for everybody involved and thereby makes public service less efficient. To wit- the other day I sat through a two-hour rubber-stamp meeting to confirm the acceptance of all the university's transfer students (note- as a committee member I have access to that info but I do feel uncomfortable with it- as may the students). But this meeting, which gave me less time to prepare for the class in the next time slot, was held as a means of increasing transparency- so that accepting transfer students is now not just the province of a few isolated officials but is something that is widely committee-approved for the sake meeting publicly-acceptable protocol.

These days I receive an increasing number of internal email saying things like: All members of the Student Cafeteria Rewiring Committee are required to submit a scanned copy of all academic records for our public website, along with a hard copy of the official seal of the registrar(s) of those institutions. Deadline: tomorrow.Ok- I'm exaggerating, but it is true that I had to file a thorough and detailed kaken-hi budget plan before we even received the money for reasons of public disclosure. Research demands some flexibility but now we are beholden to, straitjacketed by, a budget that may not meet our actual plans and needs, which of course fluctuate. So, is this type of disclosure really serving the best interests of the public? And this is not to mention the office people who have to spend time creating and monitoring those sites. Accountability is increased- while time and energy is wasted.

And this is only one of many examples. I have spent an inordinate amount of time recently filling in various university-related databases because the public demands accountability. For example, if one happens to be on a national university entrance exam committee (and this is just - ahem- hypothetical because the actual names of committee members are not supposed to be made public) one is required to submit a fairly detailed amount of specialized data which will ultimately be made available to Joe and Jane Regularpeople. Doing it accurately and fitting it into the labyrinthine guidelines and categories (mistakes or inaccuracies could cause one to be held accountable to that same public) takes considerable time away from actual class prep, student composition checking, or actual research. Is this what the public actually wants or expects me to be doing with my time?

I can tell you that just down the hall (I work at an attached university hospital) doctors and nurses have the same complaints. The same tensions between patient privacy and transparency predominate. Doctors in particular know that someone somewhere will be scrutinizing every minor decision to look for possible breaches of conduct- parlayable into claims and inquiries- which makes them hesitant when making decisions. Handcuffed.

Doctors, in the name of being held accountable, now have to record every minute nugget of information into records that can often be made accessible to patients, officials and, in some cases, the general public. This means that they are even more overworked, carrying out a lot of what effectively amounts to clerical duties. Requirements to explain in more detail to patients and immediately carry out both paper and an electronic recording of changing an old man's diaper means that the public in the outpatient department will wait longer to see Doc and that there will be fewer Doctors in total seeing them. Is this really in the best interest of the public? Is this the ultimate goal of using taxpayer's money?

Or should tax money be handed over to specialists in the public domain who we trust to do as they see fit and get tagged only when there is some egregious breach? Yes, Virginia there are better checks and balances than John Q. Grudgeholder (and his wives, Jane and Victoria).



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Comments

I think Monkasho's forcing universities to provide more info on their web pages is a good idea and is being done for the right reasons.

Too many university home pages are basically useless for gathering any type of meaningful information about the institution.

A uni education, especially a private one, is going to be one of the biggest investments a family makes. It is hard to say buyer beware when so many universities hide any and all stats that make them look bad.

Putting info class syllabi on-line can help prospective students. Forcing unis to put their acceptance and graduation rates on line will also help people judge an institution.

If unis want to provide additional information to provide an explanation for any numbers that seem poor at first glance all the more power to them.

This is just one step in cutting down on the number of marginal institutions.

You know, Treb, I can't really argue with any of the points you made. Certainly, prospective students and parents who foot the bills should be sufficiently informed. It also has the effect of forcing deadwood teachers into action.

My problem is that the 'disclosure' pendulum seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction. That too much is being made accessible, and that it becomes cluttered, imposing, and ultimately, less efficient. But mostly I dislike the fact that the motivation seems not to be positive (providing helpful information) but negative (to avoid allegations, alleviate suspicions).

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