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Committee Finds Attendance Study Did Not Violate Harvard Policy

By Theodore R. Delwiche, Crimson Staff Writer

The Committee on the Oversight of Electronic Communications found that a controversial attendance study conducted last spring did not violate the University’s Policy on Access to Electronic Information, according to a memo presented by University President Drew G. Faust on Tuesday.

The memo, which was presented to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at their last monthly meeting of the year, nevertheless offered suggestions to what it described as often unclear University policies surrounding photography and video around campus.

After a question raised during a faculty meeting last November, Vice Provost for Advances in Learning Peter K. Bol confirmed that he authorized a study last spring that photographed students without their or the professor’s consent. The next week, Bol informed thousands of students that they were photographed.

Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching researchers Samuel T. Moulton ’01 and Erin Driver-Linn, who helped conduct the study, later in the month said that HILT researchers had photographed 29 courses in total for the study and that all images had been destroyed.

In November, Faust submitted the study to Harvard’s one-year-old Committee on the Oversight of Electronic Communications for review and comment.

“So far as the Committee is aware, there is no comprehensive University policy in place for addressing these issues, nor perhaps even clear awareness of what policies are in place or are not in place,” the memo read.

The memo suggested that researches try to notify students before a study starts. In instances where advanced notification “would undermine the validity of a vitally important study that could not be performed without such notice,” students should receive prompt notices after the study commences.

At Tuesday’s Faculty meeting, Faust said she accepted and will act on the recommendations of the memo.

“Acknowledging that the continued proliferation of technology would likely continue to generate additional need for reflection, the Committee also recommended that my office, or that of the Provost, work to facilitate ongoing discussion of these matters,” she said.

In general, the memo mentioned a need for balance between students’ privacy and professors’ autonomy in the classroom and institutional research.

“Inevitably there is a tension between the University's establishment of classroom space as a locus of free and open discourse and its use of classrooms as ‘laboratories’ to study teaching and learning,” the memo read.

The end of the memo detailed several changes already enacted since the fall. Any proposed research on Harvard students is now “automatically [to] be subjected to greater scrutiny” by the University’s Committee on the Use of Human Subjects. Additionally, a research organization is being formed within the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning to oversee “learning-related” research at Harvard.

Harvard Law School professor John C. P. Goldberg chairs the electronic oversight committee, which was formed after the suggestion of another oversight committee in the wake of news that administrators had searched resident dean email accounts during the 2012 Government 1310 cheating scandal.

—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @trdelwic.

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