On the record?

A few years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, I took part in what was a somewhat difficult meeting on a sensitive topic. Those present held, and expressed, a variety of what one might call robust views. A few days later I received, from one of the participants, what was described as a note of the meeting. Except that this wasn’t what I would recognise as a note; it was clearly a full transcript. Not only did it contain, fully verbatim, what everyone had said, it even included, precisely, everyone’s linguistic infelicities and ramblings. It seemed to me that the only way this transcript could have been assembled (not least because the person who sent it to me had not during the meeting visibly written down anything other than very occasional notes) was if the meeting had been secretly recorded. I asked a question, and received a strong response along the lines that no recording had been taken. I didn’t believe that for a moment, but decided not to pursue it, though I also felt that if a recording had been taken it was completely unacceptable.

Of course I am not alone in this experience. Last week Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported an incident in which a meeting addressed by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, was secretly recorded by one of those taking part. The recording was subsequently distributed to a select group of people who had not been present. The Cabinet Secretary took exception to this, and has asked the person who took the recording to consider his position. I have to say I fully sympathise with the Cabinet Secretary.

Of course today’s technology makes taking such recordings very easy indeed. I am often at meetings in which those present have their mobile phones lying on the table in front of them, and setting these to record is very simple, and more or less impossible for anyone else to detect. I will hazard a guess that the incident above is not the only time I have been recorded without my knowledge.

But is it acceptable? I might say, for the avoidance of doubt, that nobody has ever been recorded by me without being advised and asked first. I would then add that I regard making a secret recording to be ethically totally unacceptable, except possibly at a public and open meeting. But can it be stopped or controlled? Or do we have to accept that the available technology is dictating acceptable practice? And in that context, is it acceptable for students, without first seeking permission, to record lectures or classes? And if the answer is no,  does that in any way contradict a desire for openness and transparency?

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31 Comments on “On the record?”

  1. no-name Says:

    “I might say, for the avoidance of doubt, that nobody has ever been recorded by me without being advised and asked first.”

    Hmm. Does this claim extend to still photographs which are then published on the internet, for example?


    • I’m not entirely sure what’s prompting you to ask that, no-name, but fair enough. I cannot promise that I’ve never ever taken a photograph with someone in it whose permission for publication I should have got. So for example, I didn’t ask anyone here: http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/photo-the-summer-of-2012/. Nor here: http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/keeping-the-city-alive/. But any photo which specifically features a subject, particularly where there might be human circumstances that go to personal dignity or autonomy, I always ask. For example, I did here: http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/recession-photos/

      For all that, I don’t think the issues are the same. There is a major tradition of street photography, which includes the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, that didn’t involve agreeing the photo with its subjects. You could argue that their image, or maybe their privacy (but hardly on a public street), was violated. But that’s more akin to a copyright breach, although not strictly one. If a non-public conversation I have is recorded without my knowledge and against my will, that’s a different matter. Or at least I think it is. Some tweets I have received in response to this issue suggest many believe that it isn’t, and that what you and I say is fair game for anyone recording.

      • no-name Says:

        You correctly identified the reason I asked the question, i.e., that recession photo, in particular, as an example of street photography, in general. Witnessing how wantonly digital images are now taken and how widely they can be circulated, I have the impression that only a minority enter the public arena with permission. I agree with your fundamental point about speech recording but think that it does generalize to photographic recording.

      • lillylyle Says:

        Most of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos were reconstructions from memory, staged with professional models. I know. I wept too when I found out.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    Actually the comparison with photography is not entirely irrelevant, in that the concerns raised in the post relate to general issues regarding the relationship between ethics and technology, the legal right to privacy (in some cases copyright) and ultimately surveillance across a variety of audio-visual media. All such issues are at the centre of scholarly and public/popular debate and, admittedly, far from being fully resolved. Photography is particularly useful as it is exactly with candid photography that invasion of privacy issues are historically linked. Once cameras became hand-held and lenses and film became faster, amateur and professional photographers were able to make pictures that previously were impossible. When George Eastman came up with a camera he dubbed the Kodak amateur photographers immediately took snapshots of practically anything that moved. No one was considered safe as unsuspecting strangers clicked off exposures. The camera craze that began in the 1880s in the streets of New York City soon became an international epidemic that prompted harsh reactions. The New York Times even “likened the snapshot craze with an outbreak of cholera that had become a national scourge’ ” and vigilante associations were formed to protect the honor of unsuspecting women. So, from a media history perspective, privacy is an early issue.
    With regards to the case discussed in the post and in the Herald’s article, it is pretty obvious that Mr Ramsay should have notified Mr Russell and, crucially, everybody else, of his intention to record the conversation. The recording in itself might not be illegal (or be enough cause for Mr Ramsey’s resignation at a time when controversial reforms are under consideration) however courtesy itself would have demanded that much. Also, new technologies demand new social conventions – not in the sense that technologies should dictate acceptable practice as mentioned in the post – rather in a sense akin to what is commonly known as “netiquette” i.e. Internet etiquette – the informal rules of behaviour to be followed when using the Internet. While etiquette has been ingrained in our culture for centuries – see Galateo, the famous treatise on polite behavior written by Giovanni Della Casa (1503–56) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtesy_book – etiquette in technology is a fairly recent concept, we have some catching up to do, fast.

  3. Vince Says:

    In unequal situations and where one is receiving opinion from a professional, having a contemporaneous record in your possession can’t be a bad thing. I know that notes I wrote after meetings with solicitors to be accurate but on my next meeting got the opposite. That was the reason I got a phone with a dictation device some years ago. It may well be handy later.

    And the photos are totally different. They could only be the same if it shot was designed as an active record.

  4. iainmaclain Says:

    of course it’s not just phones, but now pens can be used to record as per the lightscribe models which many students are now using in lectures, not all of whom ask permission.

  5. iainmacl Says:

    sorry, meant ‘livescribe’


  6. I think there is a distinction between a private (or semi-private) conversation, such as that mentioned in the Herald article, and a semi-public classroom environment.

    The education sector is currently embracing the use of recorded lectures to allow students to re-watch/listen to classes after the event, and we’ve seen the benefit this can bring. Given that the students are also paying to attend these classes and consume the knowledge being discussed, I don’t think its unreasonable to allow students the freedom to record lectures individually.

    There may be a case against recording tutorials, given the more active interaction other members of the class should(!) be making, but if we are pro-active about the policy on such things I think even this should realistically be allowed.

  7. no-name Says:

    “And in that context, is it acceptable for students, without first seeking permission, to record lectures or classes? And if the answer is no, does that in any way contradict a desire for openness and transparency?”

    It seems inappropriate for students to make such recordings without permission: doing so explicitly ignores the rights not only of lecturers, but also of other students who share the classes and who may wish not to be recorded. The wish for a recording seems naturally subordinate to the rights of those individuals who could be recorded, regardless of whether the medium involves audio recording or images.


    • I completely disagree no-name. What the students are recording is the transfer of information that they have paid to receive. The information being discussed is neither private (within the scope of the institution) nor personal to the lecturer, and is in fact the property of the institution itself, not the individual staff member. If the students were recording a private conversation with the lecturer, that is one thing, but recording the service they have paid to receive with the express intent of using it solely for their studies (and we have to assume that’s the reason for it) is another entirely.
      The right to have a recording (which, in reality, is just the same as you are getting if you are provided with a Word transcript or a set of PowerPoint slides) is something that students are now demanding, particularly for accessibility purposes, but also for more general study reasons. The institution has an obligation to decide policy on this, but the rights of the individual lecturer in this case are, I believe, somewhat moot – they are being paid to provide a service, and if the institution believes that service should allow students to record them as they lecture, that should not affect the lecturer’s personal privacy or rights in any way. (Harsh, I know, but accurate).

      • no-name Says:

        What do bouncers say to you when you start recording at concerts that you have paid to hear (assuming that you can even manage to record only the band and not the people in the crowd who do not wish to be recorded)? Lecturers are not, in fact, chattel, their personal rights do matter.


        • It’s a different circumstance. With a concert you are paying to watch & hear the band live with the final product being “watching & hearing the band live”. It goes no further.
          With a lecture you are paying to watch & hear the lecturer live with the final product being “learn what they have to teach you in order to gain a good education and a good degree”. To that end, recording the information in order to study it further is part of what you are paying for. Students have always recorded their lectures, it’s just in the past they have recorded by writing down what they are being taught. Now it’s a mix of written and audible recording – why should that be any different?

          • no-name Says:

            Adding technology to the note taking process is different even in that mere description: it adds technology to the recording process. Further, is different for the reason that the inserted technology makes it easier for the copyist to violate the rights of the person being recorded, as in the example of the original posting in which informal notes of a meeting were not troubling but a verbatim transcript constituted a violation of trust.

            The student who seeks without permission to put their own interests ahead of the rights of classmates and lecturers does not appear to merit special consideration in support of their ambitions for “a good degree”.

            A student has a right to share first hand in experiences on the day of a lecture. It is not obvious that this extends to a right to repeat that experience ad infinitum.

            Whether the law respects the natural rights of people to control the use of their voice, image or words is a separate matter.

  8. Anna Notaro Says:

    On the matter of the recording of lectures, you might find this of interest:
    Key Points

    • In legal terms, copyright will be the most significant issue for institutions to consider when recording lectures.

    • Where materials are produced by an employee (lecturer) working within the course of their employment, copyright is generally owned by the employer (college or university) and permission is not then required to include those works in a lecture recording.

    • Subject to certain limited exceptions, where materials are created by non employees (students, third parties) an institution will generally require permission, or a licence from the copyright owner to include them in a lecture recording.

    • Institutions require the consent of performers (including employees) in order to record, copy, or make available a performance.

    • Consent should be obtained from any individual who is the focus of a recorded lecture in order to process his/her personal data fairly. This is likely to include the lecturer and other active participants. All attendees should know that a recording is taking place, the purpose of the recording and to whom it will be made available. The institution may consider making an area available in the lecture theatre where images will not be recorded.

    Legal Guidance for ICT Use in Education, Research and External Engagement 2010 – JISC (UK’s expert on information and digital technologies for education and research).

    http://tinyurl.com/d5od3mt


    • Anna, can I query two things as I don’t know the legal standpoint.

      In your third bullet you said that an institution would need a licence from the copyright owner, but as mentioned in point two the institution normally *IS* the copyright owner, so does this not mean part of the institution blanket policy could be to grant that licence to any enrolled student on the course(s) the lecture is intended for?

      In terms of consent re your last two points, can an institution define policy to be that any staff member giving a lecture MUST AUTOMATICALLY grant consent for recording, subject to exceptional circumstance perhaps, with provision that recordings are used solely by the student for purposes of study towards their course at the institution? As it is part and parcel of what we do in education now, is this an unreasonable policy to have in place?

      • no-name Says:

        “MUST AUTOMATICALLY grant consent”

        An obliged reply might be misinterpreted as consent, but it would not be consent.

  9. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    I agree with University that it is despicable to record meetings without permission, but the widespread availability of sophisticated recording devices allows us to catch people out. The question is, does this alter our behavior for the better? Perhaps, as we know not to say silly things in public anymore and in the long run may think before we speak.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Eduard, when it comes to privacy and technology our behavior DOES change, in that privacy is socially constructed and it shifts across historical periods and cultures. It is related to technological development for the reason that the social cannot be separated from the technological (as sociologists like Castells & Latour have convincingly argued), in other words the technologies we use affect the meaning of privacy. In order to appreciate how modern privacy is as a concept we only need to think that in medieval times, on wedding nights, the bride and the groom would consummate their marriage in front of members of the community (!)

      @duncanmaciver as a matter of clarification, the bullet points above are not *my* points but the key points of the Guidelines document available at the url at the bottom of the quote. Personally I think that consent should be always obtained.

  10. Oriflamme Says:

    Having been an academic and member of the governing body at a major university, my experience leads me to the opposite view of Mr von Prondzynski.

    Firstly, to lecturers: smart pens are here to stay. Much more than “secret” recording devices, the pens are fully integrated and synchronised with the written notes recorded in the smart notebooks essential to their operation. Later, the recorded information, both written and audio, when uploaded to a computer, can be accessed, printed, word processed, etc., very efficiently and conveniently. Students who use them are finding them to be invaluable. Ditto regarding the utility of iPads and so on. If a lecturer is so uncomfortable as to reject being recorded in this way, one really has to question their career choice. I predict that, within a year or three, acceptance that lectures will be recorded will be the default position.

    With regard to the use of such devices at court, senate, faculty, committees, etc., the same default position will inevitably follow. I am a poor taker of notes. A friend taught himself shorthand many years ago for the very purpose of being able to maximise his ability to record such meetings. My experience of the workings of managers, boards and committees has many times given me cause, post facto, to regret my inability to do likewise. But would I then have fallen foul of the likes of Messrs Russell and von Prondzynski? If so, how about the taking of copious longhand notes. If not, then smart/audio recording is simply a further sensible step enable by new technology.

    I understand that Mr Ramsay of Stow College passed his smart pen recordings to fellow attendees. In so doing, he broke no condition of confidentiality.

    Managers should get used to saying what they mean and to expect to be held fully to account. If not, then they too should be taking a good look at whether they have picked the right job.

    • no-name Says:

      “…. smart pens are here to stay…. with the… the smart notebooks essential to their operation.”

      Ironically, smart users are not essential to their operation. By hypothesis, these devices will propel their users beyond the levels predicted by the Peter Principle, into tiers of management and control that create consequent exposure of the rest of society to great risk. The people who have risen to their natural level of incompetence will be guided by people who are beyond incompetent.

      Some in the world are happier placing professional trust in people who are able to reason in the absence of technical aids than in people who can reason only when supported by prosthetic intelligence.

      “If a lecturer is so uncomfortable as to reject being recorded in this way, one really has to question their career choice.”

      One might also suggest that individuals franchised in university boardrooms who question the career choice of an academic who wishes to preserve a right to retain control over the use of her or his own voice or image, or to protect the equal rights of students, should, in questioning that career choice, also question their own: they should ask whether the style of micro-management entailed by forcing recordings in the classrooms from the level of the boardroom is more constructively aligned with what is traditionally associated with canine obedience schools (where the classroom probably is the boardroom), or with military boot-camps (with a tremendous hierarchical distance between the two rooms, and affording as many chances for power-display as there are rank differences), since both of those sorts of schools identify demonstration of reflexive obedience as a primary measure of success, than aligned with the sound governance of university level educational and research institutions.

      It seems that a category error must have been responsible for the admission of people with the title “manager” into the governance of any university in the first place.

  11. Anna Notaro Says:

    ‘If a lecturer is so uncomfortable as to reject being recorded in this way, one really has to question their career choice. I predict that, within a year or three, acceptance that lectures will be recorded will be the default position.’
    This strikes me as being a rather simplistic position, besides the type of communication that occurs in a classroom cannot be automatically compared to other types of social/professional meetings. It is not just a matter of ‘meaning what one says’ and accountability (as if academics were not under scrutiny enough!), human communication is much more complicated than that, there are nuances which have to do with context, content and the way that our bodies and minds *interact* with technology that cannot be ignored.
    When it comes to the recordings of university lectures in particular this article in the Chronicle illustrates rather well some of the complexities I am referring to. http://chronicle.com/article/College-20-More-Professors/64521/

    • James Fryar Says:

      I must agree with Anna. For me, the issue isn’t whether or not lectures are recorded. My concern would be the purpose of recording the lecture.

      I’ve looked into students’ eyes and I’ve flat-out lied to them. I’ve told them stuff that simply wasn’t true. I’ve manipulated the truth and done so with a convincing conviction. But this is all part of lecturing … you can’t tell first years the ‘truth’ about why s orbitals are spherical and p orbitals dumb-bell shaped, for example, because they won’t understand it until third-year. You don’t tell them the exact history of a discovery but the ‘scientists’ version of history’ we use to simplify the mess it actually was and show the connections to their course.

      If these ‘discussions’ were taken out of context I, quite probably, would look a fool. But it wouldn’t change the fact that I had to lie to students to achieve an end-goal

  12. Oriflamme Says:

    Simplistic? Or keeping it simple … ?

    Like it or not, and I don’t say I do, you’re in a market (you are!) in which the “customers” (no, I don’t like it either …) are stumping up £9000 per year, more often than not to pay for third rate tuition in third rate institutions with third rate infrastructure. This can persist only for so long a the protected oligoply that is the current HE sector is allowed to exist.

    With the introduction of “top up” tuition fees (which are, in reality, used to subsidise, to an indefensible degree, the pursuit of RAE rankings; and any analysis I’ve seen of time allocation surveys v. institutional income confirms this) the genie was released from the bottle and can never go back. A free market will inevitably follow, for no political party will protect the priveleged position of poorly performing institutions/departments/academics inherent in the status quo.

    Already, private providers, including FTSE 100 publishing companies and top US universities, are sniffing around for opportunities to turn a profit. At £9000 a pop, the opportunities a certainly there; I’ve seen the sums, I’ve done my own.

    Sordid? It surely is, but none of it was of my doing, quite the reverse.

    In such a world, like it or not, the customer, if not king, is at least likely to demand pedagogical value for the hefty financial charges they incur. This will include the right to exploit the benefits of new digital tools. Talk and chalk should have died years ago.

    And as a PS, Anna, did you look at the comments under your Chronicle link? Overwhelmingly, the academics who responded to this were of the view, supported by experience and evidence, that the benefits of allowing recordings are well worthwhile. How on earth anyone can deny the benefits a keen student will obtain from being able to re-listen to the day’s lecture material on the journey home is beyond me. That, to me, is simply the point.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Yes, I did see the comments and I personally already allow students to make audio-recordings of my lectures, I make clear though to the class that I wish to be made aware of it. I stress that in a teaching/learning environment *trust* is important, something that is increasingly eroded in most contexts and, I believe, still worth preserving. Actually, I would add that the role of trust is exactly what the examples described by FvP’s (his own personal experience), Mr Russell’s meeting and a classroom situation have all in common, it’s the lack of trust, (plus the complexities of privacy as a socio-technological construct I mentioned above) which is at the heart of the matter here.
      PS. Yes, I meant simplistic, (not simple), or, if you like, oversimplified, superficial, general, etc. etc.
      Much could be said about the Scottish peculiarities in comparison to the students’ fees situation (among other matters) in the rest of the UK but I won’t go into that..

  13. no-name Says:

    “How on earth anyone can deny the benefits a keen student will obtain from being able to re-listen to the day’s lecture material on the journey home is beyond me.”

    One might equally ask how anyone on the planet could deny that everyone in the room has rights, and not just the people who want to make a electronic recordings.

    A different version of the scenario could flow like this:

    Leslie would get more out of the lecture if Robin did not always ask questions that Leslie does not understand.

    Therefore, no one could deny that Leslie has the natural right to force Robin to drink a fatal dose of hemlock.

    (Possibly, Leslie could win an award from the Board for raising the staff/student ratio.)

    If Leslie’s desires take precedence over everyone else’s rights, does that precedence rescind all other rights?


    • I’m sorry but that is a completely ridiculous argument. Ignoring the more ridiculous elements, the base premise that someone would get more out of a lecture if any sort of relevant questions were not asked is fundamentally opposed to the whole premise of study.

      Ridiculousness aside, the base fact is that students now want the value of recording lectures to improve their knowledge retention and overall studies, as well as to assist with certain forms of learning difficulty or disability, and that is not going to change.
      This is a change in the job lecturers do that is equivalent to the change from chalk boards to visualisers to computers & projectors, and like that change it is something lecturers are going to have to accept as the way they do their job.

      The best ways to manage this if staff are worried about some of the things they are saying are for the institution to control the recording (most students I’m sure would prefer to be handed a good quality recording than have to do it themselves anyway), and for the lecturer to think about their content more carefully (and if there are things they wouldn’t want to be misinterpreted on or taken out of context, be very careful about what they say – which they should really be doing anyway).

      It’s not going away, it’s only going to become more prolific, so lets embrace it as the good learning tool that it is(and most of the good lecturers I’ve worked with have already done so) and use it to develop innovative and exciting courses for our students.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        @Duncan, I am all for developing innovative and exciting courses which make the most of new technologies, however I have the impression that your comment is conflating two different issues: the original question was whether it is acceptable for students, without first seeking permission, to record lectures or classes (in which case I still maintain issues of trust and courtesy, among others, come into play) and the issue of whether or not the recordings of classes should become accepted practice due to its pedagogical merits. In the latter case, the problems with trust and secrecy do not stand of course as the lecturer herself has ‘embraced’ as you say the new learning tool. Most importantly, a lecture which is ‘meant’ to be audio-visually recorded would be prepared/conceived in a different manner, in that the lecturer has an active role in exploiting the pedagogical possibilities offered by the new tool, quite a different matter if a lecture, not conceived with such possibilities in mind, is recorded in secret. This has nothing to do with being careful in what one says (which, I agree, a lecturer should be doing anyway), ultimately neither technology nor monetary factors alone (fees, as hinted in comments above) should dictate what is best academic practice.


        • @Anna I take your point, they are separate issues. They are directly related though – recording of lectures is going to happen whether lecturers plan for it or not, so does it not make sense for institutions to define policy on this, and to take control of how the recordings are managed?
          This removes the need for students to take their own recordings, gives control back to the lecturer & institution, and ultimately removes the crux of the issue.

  14. no-name Says:

    “I’m sorry but that is a completely ridiculous argument.”

    I would not want to be a student in a university controlled by individuals who would deny as ridiculous the argument that everyone in the classroom has natural rights.


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