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Robert price on surveillance and privacyThe Chinese educational system takes a brute force approach to teaching: memorize everything. Teachers and parents smash information into the brains of students.

The result is usually astonishing. The Chinese educational system excels at teaching discipline, and students from China are, to generalize, dedicated and earnest about their education, and smart, smart, smart. Through hours of schooling, after-school tutoring and weekend schooling, Chinese students learn to master subject matter in ways most Canadian students can’t fathom.

With exception of the Chinese dedication to schooling and the seriousness that Chinese culture gives to education, few Canadians would want to see their children schooled by Chinese methods. We westerners prefer a more individualized approach to knowledge. Students are not automatons or memorization machines. Students are people. They need choice, freedom, and room to develop their independence and creativity.

Westerners probably give children too much freedom (the stereotype that western children live amid a culture of disrespect isn’t off base). But in light of new reports on surveillance of Chinese children, choice is preferable to no choice.

Last month, the Associated Press reported that educators are using facial recognition software in the class to monitor student behaviour. At a test school, machines read the faces of students to determine how they feel throughout the day. Are they happy? Do they look sad? And why is that student not more enthusiastic about singing the national anthem?

The AP report reads like dystopian science fiction and makes the requisite allusion to Facecrime, a crime of independent thought outlined in George Orwell’s 1984.

All that said, educators in the west should bury any feelings of superiority they might have. Yes, here’s another example of the state dehumanizing its people by thrusting the eye of the Communist Party into a person’s inner life. (For another example, read up on official China’s interests in sinicizing Roman Catholicism to remove foreign influences and bring Catholicism under the aegis of the party.)

Westerners would be arrogant to assume we would never subject ourselves to autocratic oversight.

We already do.

While not driven by the interests of official China, western tech companies like Facebook and Google have profiled each of us with and without our permission. We freely trade our personal data for the opportunity to Facebook stalk old friends. We support companies like Amazon that recently released facial recognition software that police are using to identify people who show up at political protests. And plenty of companies are developing robots and artificial intelligence to displace human labourers. As consumers, we support them, too.

Our schools are not immune to surveillance, either. Turnitin.com, the plagiarism detection software used by schools across North America, recently unveiled a new feature that can identify when students submit papers they didn’t write.

Fraudulent papers are a big problem. Rather than copy from books – which Turnitin is adept at catching – many students hire essay writing services to write original papers for them to submit.

The new Turnitin feature works by training machines to read papers – which reside, in the hundreds of thousands, on Turnitin’s servers – and to identify the voice of each author. When the machine detects a different voice lurking in a paper, the teacher receives a notice that somebody other than student has written the paper.

This, by definition, is surveillance technology. The machine learns to recognize the idiosyncrasies in the writing of individual students and to flag any writing that doesn’t conform to that voice.

This technology should be a scandal but it isn’t. Too many schools rely on Turnitin to help manage the grading that pours out of huge classes. Administrators at these schools likely don’t see this new feature as an infringement on the rights of students, or a warping of trust between teacher and student. They’ll see it as an upgrade.

The classroom is – or should be – a private space, a space where students can speak freely, make mistakes, rebel and change their minds. That’s all part of learning.

And they should be able to do this without any authority other than the teacher and their own conscience watching over them.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

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