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Are Schools Disproportionately Surveilling Students Who Rely on School-Owned Devices?

Monitoring student activity online has become a hot button issue for districts, schools and parents alike in the digital age, where information is often shared freely and copiously via email, social media and other channels. In response to these trends, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a nonprofit organization that works to shape tech policy and architecture with a focus on democracy and the rights of the individual, says there’s been widespread adoption of software that monitors students in K-12 schools nationwide.

Using these tools, schools can filter web content; monitor students’ search engine queries and browsing history; view students’ emails, messages and social media content; and/or view their screens in real-time.

“Fueled in part by pandemic-era remote learning needs, schools have adopted this technology with the aim of measuring and improving student engagement and keeping students safe online,” the CDT points out in a research report it released last year on student activity monitoring software. The report, based on surveys of students, parents and teachers as well as interviews with school district staff, raises some critical red flags for student equity and privacy protection among these tools, despite their popularity.

Widespread Use of Monitoring

According to the CDT report, 81 percent of teachers who responded to the survey say their schools use student activity monitoring software and of these teachers, one in four say that monitoring is limited to school hours. According to Cody Venzke, CDT’s senior policy counsel, widespread monitoring can disproportionately impact students from low-income families who rely on school-issued devices because these devices typically track student activity more deeply than personal devices. Joined by CDT Research Manager DeVan Hankerson Madrigal and Boulder Valley School District CIO Andrew Moore, Venzke discussed this and other issues related to student activity monitoring at a recent CoSN conference session.

Venzke says the session recapped the CDT’s recent research findings, which focused on “getting a better grip on the harms that can extend from schools’ monitoring of student activity online.” Madrigal spearheaded the research project and interviewed numerous school IT leaders for it.

“The gist of the presentation underscored that student activity monitoring is being deployed in a widespread manner across school districts across this country,” Venzke explains, “and that it can have a negative impact on students’ well-being, despite the fact that it might be implemented for laudable reasons.”

For instance, CDT’s research shows that monitoring can have what Venzke calls a “chilling impact” on students who won’t share their true thoughts or feelings online if they know they’re being monitored. It also raises potential concerns that the data collected through the activity monitoring will be used out of context.

For example, students coping with mental health challenges may be deterred from searching for help online and LGBTQ+ students may not search for supportive communities if they know what they’re doing online is being monitored. Similarly, although many school IT leaders told CDT that they use this technology to protect student safety, the teachers and parents CDT polled said their schools were using the data for discipline as well, flagging specific behaviors as concerning.

According to Venzke, “Some of the safety benefits that are purported to come from this technology may actually be counterbalanced by the effects it has on students’ well-being and mental health,” Venzke says.

During interviews, Venzke says, some schools claim they’re using these tools to comply with laws, such as the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). “One school IT leader told us that they ‘needed a lot of granular control’ so that they could ‘comply with CIPA,’ but CIPA itself says that ‘nothing in the statute shall be construed to require the tracking of internet use by any identifiable minor or adult user.’” says Venzke, “We ultimately found that the motivations for schools to implement this monitoring were not necessarily well founded where legal compliance reasons may not be compelled by the laws that were cited.”

Subjected to Two Layers of Monitoring

Madrigal says schools may also be disproportionately monitoring or surveilling students from low-income families, who rely on school-owned devices. These students may be subject to the device-specific monitoring as well as any additional monitoring software that the school is “running on top of the device itself,” says Madrigal. “That’s two layers of monitoring that a student who may not be able to afford their own device might be subject to.”

For example, all students in a school may have their documents, which are stored in the schools’ cloud storage, scanned for keywords, including documents like private journals. Students who depend on school-issued devices may be subject to additional monitoring, which students who use their own device may not encounter, including school officials monitoring their screens, open applications or browsing history 24/7.

When monitored, students may also lose trust in the very tools being used to close the digital divide, and that can negatively impact equity.

“It’s been long demonstrated that historically marginalized groups of students have [fewer] educational opportunities than their peers do,” Madrigal explains. “Those disparities in opportunity can be compounded through the technologies that schools are using, not only in a lack of access, but also in saddling those students with surveillance technology when that access is provided.”

Only During School Hours

With 30,000 students in 55 schools, Boulder Valley School District provides Chromebooks to all students in grades 6-12 in exchange for a “modest tech fee,” according to Moore, with those eligible for free or reduced lunch receiving their devices and internet access (as long as they live three miles from a school) for free. “This ensured that every student had a device and that all of those devices were the same,” he says. When the pandemic hit, the district rolled out the IT Prime program, which ensured students in all grades had Chromebooks.

Since 2017, the district has been using GoGuardian classroom monitoring software, which provides a Chromebook web filter that allows teachers to “take control of students’ devices by locking down which sites they can visit,” Moore explains. That function is only enabled during the school day, and prevents teachers from monitoring student activity outside of those hours.

“We feel that’s more of a parent’s or guardian’s responsibility, and that it also [straddles] that fine line between what students are doing in their off hours,” Moore says. “Whether someone watching a movie on Netflix is a good thing or a bad thing, depends on your perspective, but it’s really not in the school district’s purview to say thumbs up or thumbs down to what you’re doing in the off hours.”

To districts that may be struggling with how to keep students safe while also respecting their privacy online, and also supporting equity, Moore recommends experimenting with different options and not giving up after hitting a wall. “It’s easy to get frustrated when you don’t get it right every single time,” he says, advising districts to explore new tools if the ones they’re using don’t feel right.

Moore also cautions districts not to lose sight of the fact that all students deserve an equitable opportunity to learn. “As school districts, if we can provide that, then we put all of our students on the right path for success in life,” says Moore. “But if we back off of that and just say, ‘this problem is too hard to solve’ or ‘we don’t have the resources,’ we’re doing a disservice to our society overall by not giving everyone an equitable opportunity to learn.”

Lessons Learned

Amelia Vance, founder and president at Public Interest Privacy Consulting, is concerned about the lack of trust between schools and families and says increased student monitoring may be widening that gap. “We’re seeing a lot of skepticism around how schools select curricula, teach, and make decisions about student safety and student rights,” says Vance.

For example, asking students to write personal essays or complete worksheets for guidance counselors often leads to schools collecting very sensitive data. Parents have become increasingly wary of this practice.

“Based on the flood of journalism over the past couple of years, we’ve seen pushback as parents learn more about [activity monitoring] software,” says Vance. “It’s something that could further increase that lack of trust, and could undermine monitoring that, in some cases, could be very valuable or legally required.”

Districts also tend to collect and store too much sensitive data that can be used to paint a very detailed, intimate profile of “everything that kids are doing, and that may be retained far longer than it should be,” says Vance. That data could be subject to a data breach.

With the goal of doing what’s best for their students, many schools overlook the pitfalls of collecting, retaining and/or analyzing all of this data. Vance says a better approach is to establish a record retention limit and then delete the associated data on a regular basis. She also cautions districts to be wary of software that claims to be able to identify threats, potential mental health issues and other red flags.

“That technology and science is still in its infancy, and oftentimes the [software] flags far more students than it accurately identifies,” says Vance. “While it’s completely understandable that schools want to detect self-harm or potential threats, the [software] may end up harming more students than it helps.”


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