Exploring school surveillance in the digital age

Surveillance has become an integral part of everyday life, giving rise to talk of ‘electronic police states’ and the ‘surveillance society’ (Lyon 1994, Marx 1985). Surveillance refers typically to any systematic focus on personal information that enables public and/or private agents to influence, manage or control populations from whom the information is collected (Bennett et al. 2014, Gandy 1993). Traditionally, the practice has involved vertical forms of monitoring where more powerful actors exercise control over the less powerful. Recent technological developments have increased instances of horizontal surveillance where power hierarchies are more or less flattened. Here, individuals and groups gather information on each other through various ‘interpersonal electronic strategies’ that are implicit in the use of popular digital media – not least social networks such as Facebook (Marwick 2012, Tokunaga 2011). Also prevalent in recent times is a range of self-surveillance processes and practices, where individuals deliberately monitor and manage their own actions and behaviours. All told, the digital age is as much an era of surveillance as anything else.


As might be expected, surveillance processes and practices are now a pervasive feature of public schools. Common forms of school surveillance include the usage of CCTV (closed circuit television) throughout school sites, online monitoring techniques, the use of smart cards, RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags and biometric tracking. Through such technologies, modes of measurement and control of school populations have increased steadily  – albeit attracting less controversy and resistance than has been the case with the implementation of surveillance technologies in society more generally.


Matters of surveillance therefore tend to be largely justified (and often accepted) as underpinning schools’ ability to function in the digital age. Often this technology is enmeshed with issues of school safety and protection. For instance, it is estimated that 40 percent of English schools are using biometric technology to monitor the movements of students and restrict ‘inappropriate’ access (Big Brother Watch 2014). In addition, the UK Department for Education has granted permission to schools to implement surveillance technologies to monitor student behaviour in classrooms, corridors and playgrounds. Tellingly, live online feeds of these images are available to teachers and parents (Edgar 2014).


Surveillance is also increasingly associated with enhancing the pedagogic efficiencies of schools and classrooms. In 2013, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested more than $1.4 million in the development of ‘engagement pedometers’ – biometric bracelets that can monitor electrical changes in a student’s nervous system as an indication of increased levels of interest and excitement during lessons. This, and other modes of, self-generation of data by individuals has led to talk of the ‘sentient school’ where amassed forms of personalized surveillance data can be used to direct teaching and learning on a real-time responsive basis (Lupton 2014).


Notwithstanding such cutting-edge surveillance techniques, most schools remain preoccupied with more mundane forms of student monitoring, grounded primarily in the language of care and security. For instance, in the Australian state of Victoria (the context for the empirical elements of our research), principals have asked the State Government to install additional security cameras to ‘protect’ school staff. According to the Australian Federation of Principals president, “the employer has got a responsibility of duty and care. They need to find the resources to ensure there’s a least some semblance of security and safety” (Lauder 2014, para.10). In this sense, many of the most commonplace structures of surveillance (such as CCTV) are seen as essential – if not desirable – additions to the contemporary school setting.


Of course, there is much more to these technologies of surveillance than benign issues of safety, protection, care, and sentience. As a handful of scholars have begun to demonstrate, school surveillance must be understood in problematic rather than pragmatic terms (Hope 2013, Taylor 2013). Indeed, as Monahan and Torres (2010) argue, surveillance in public schools is increasingly used as a method of knowledge production. On this view, surveillance becomes a dominant organizational logic of the public school as an institution, shaping its day-to-day activities and “reifying normative categories of appearance and behavior” (p.7). Surveillance in schools operationalizes a dynamics of power.


The aim of our research, then, is to explore critically the everyday conditions of surveillance in the contemporary secondary school context. In particular, it seeks to unpack the range of surveillance practices and processes at work within schools, and how these are encountered and experienced by students, teachers, administrators and other members of a ‘school community’. We do so by drawing from the works of Bauman and Lyon (2013) to suggest that contemporary society is in the throes of a shift from ‘panoptic’ surveillance to ‘liquid’ surveillance. Following Bauman’s writing on ‘liquid society’, liquid surveillance is a rhetorical device that can be used to compare the “mobile, pulsating signals of today’s flowing forms” of digital technology with the “fixity and spatial orientation of solid modern surveillance” (Bauman & Lyon 2013, p.15). In this sense, the metaphor of liquid surveillance perhaps more aptly captures the blurring of material and social boundaries as schools and schooling become more digital in their nature and form.


Yet, while liquid surveillance does indeed capture the mutability and flexibility of borders in a digital society, how far does the concept allow us to analyse what is occurring in the world of watching, sorting, and controlling? Our main concerns in this research are with the evolution of panoptic to post-panoptic surveillance and whether or not surveillance in schools emulates these developments, specifically with regards to the flattening out of power hierarchies as a result of the incorporation of vertical and horizontal modes of surveillance. Key questions that drive our research include: What is surveillance in schools? What evidence is there for each of these forms/modes/conditions of surveillance? How are digital technologies implicit in their operation?



Bauman, Z. & Lyon, D. (2013). Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Bennett, C., Haggerty, K., Lyon, D., & Steeves, V. (eds.). (2014). Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.

Big Brother Watch. (2014, January). Biometrics in schools: The extent of biometrics in English secondary schools and academies. http://bit.ly/1ySp7GY

Edgar, J. (2014). Government allows problem schools to take up free camera surveillance trial. The Telegraph. http://bit.ly/1mubhn1

Gandy, O. H. (1993). The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal Information. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Hope, A. (2013). Foucault, panopticism and school surveillance research. In M. Murphy (ed.) Social Theory and Education Research. London: Routledge, pp. 35-51.

Lauder, S. (2013, September 11). Principals call for CCTV cameras in schools to stop parents bullying teachers. ABC. http://ab.co/17k1FbU

Lyon, D. (1994). The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society. Minneapolis: MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Lupton, D. (2014). Data assemblages, sentient schools and digitised health and physical education (response to Gard). Sport, Education and Society, 20(1), 122-132.

Marwick, A. (2012). The public domain: Social surveillance in everyday life. Surveillance & Society, 9(4), 378-393. http://www.surveillance-and-society.org

Marx, G. T (1985). The surveillance society: The threat of 1984-style techniques. The Futurist, 19(June), 21-26.

Monahan, T. & Torres, R. D. (eds.). (2010). Schools Under Surveillance: Cultures of Control in Public Education. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Taylor, E. (2013) Surveillance Schools: Security, Discipline and Control in Contemporary Education. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.

Tokunaga, R. (2011). Social networking site or social surveillance site? Understanding the use of interpersonal electronic surveillance in romantic relationships. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(2), 705-713.