Do schools disproportionately monitor students who use school-owned devices?

Monitoring student activity online has become a hot issue for districts, schools, and parents in the digital age, where information is often freely and copiously shared through 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 technology policy and architecture with a focus on democracy and the rights of the individual, says that there has been widespread adoption of software that monitors students in K-12 schools nationwide.

With these tools, schools can filter web content; monitor student search engine queries and browsing history; view student 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 embraced this technology in an effort to measure and improve student engagement and keep students safe online. “, underlines the CDT in a research report it released student activity monitoring software last year. The report, based on surveys of students, parents and teachers as well as interviews with school district staff, raises critical red flags for student fairness and privacy among these tools, despite their popularity.

Widespread use of monitoring

According to the CDT report, 81% of teachers who responded to the survey say their schools use student activity monitoring software and of those teachers, one in four say the monitoring is limited to class hours. According to CDT senior policy adviser Cody Venzke, widespread surveillance can have a disproportionate impact on students from low-income families who rely on school-provided devices, as these devices typically track student activity more deeply than personal devices. Joined by CDT Research Director DeVan Hankerson Madrigal and Boulder Valley School District IT Director Andrew Moore, Venzke discussed this and other issues with monitoring student activity during a recent session of CoSN conference.

Venzke says the session summarized recent findings from CDT research, which focused on “a better understanding of the harms that can result from schools monitoring student activity online.” Madrigal led the research project and interviewed many school IT leaders for it.

“The gist of the presentation highlighted that student activity monitoring is being rolled out widely in school districts across this country,” Venzke explains, “and can have a negative impact on student well-being. students, despite the fact that it could be implemented for laudable reasons.

For example, CDT research shows that surveillance 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 watched. It also raises potential concerns that data collected through activity tracking will be used out of context.

For example, students struggling with mental health issues may be deterred from seeking help online, and LGBTQ+ students may not seek out supportive communities if they know what they do online is being monitored. . Similarly, although many school IT officials told CDT they use the technology to protect student safety, teachers and parents interviewed by CDT said their schools also use the data for discipline, reporting specific behaviors as of concern.

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

In interviews, Venzke says, some schools say they use these tools to comply with laws, such as the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). “A school IT manager told us that he ‘needed a lot of granular control‘ to be able to ‘comply with CIPA,’ but CIPA itself states that ‘nothing in the law should be construed as requiring the tracking of internet usage by any identifiable minor or adult user. says Venzke: “We ultimately found that the motivations of schools to implement this monitoring were not necessarily justified when reasons of legal compliance may not be imposed by the cited laws. »

Subject to two layers of supervision

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

For example, all students in a school can see their documents, which are stored in the school’s cloud storage, scanned for keywords, including documents such as private journals. Students who rely on school-provided devices may be subject to additional monitoring that students using their own devices may not encounter, including school officials monitoring their screens, open apps, or apps. browsing history 24/7.

When monitored, students can also lose faith in the very tools used to bridge the digital divide, which can negatively impact fairness.

“It has long been demonstrated that historically marginalized groups of students have [fewer] educational opportunities than their peers,” says Madrigal. “These disparities in opportunity can be compounded by the technologies that schools use, not only due to a lack of access, but also by overwhelming these students with surveillance technology when that access is provided.”

Only during school hours

With 30,000 students in 55 schools, the Boulder Valley School District is providing Chromebooks to all students in grades 6 through 12 in exchange for “modest technical fees,” according to Moore, those eligible for a free or reduced lunch receiving their devices and Internet access (as long as they live within three miles of a school) for free. “It ensured that each 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 of all grades had Chromebooks.

Since 2017, the district has used classroom monitoring software GoGuardian, which provides a Chromebook web filter that allows teachers to “take control of student devices by locking down the sites they can visit,” Moore says. This feature is only enabled during the school day and prevents teachers from monitoring student activity outside of these hours.

“We feel that this is more the responsibility of a parent or guardian, and that too [straddles] that fine line between what students do outside of work 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 within the purview of the school district to say a thumbs up or a thumbs up. down to what you do during off-peak hours.”

For districts that may struggle to keep students safe while respecting their online privacy and supporting fairness, 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 every time,” he says, advising districts to explore new tools if the ones they’re using aren’t working for them.

Moore also warns 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, we’ll put all of our students on the right path to success in life,” Moore says. “But if we give up on that and just say ‘this problem is too hard to solve’ or ‘we don’t have the resources’, we’re doing our society as a whole a disservice by not giving everyone a chance. fair to learn.”

Lessons learned

Amelia Vance, founder and president of Public Interest Privacy Consulting, worries about the lack of trust between schools and families and says increased surveillance of students could widen that gap. “We see a lot of skepticism about how schools select programs, teach and make decisions about student safety and rights,” Vance says.

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

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

Districts also tend to collect and store too much sensitive data that can be used to build a very detailed and intimate profile of “everything children do that can be retained for far longer than it should,” explains Vance. This data could be subject to a data breach.

In an effort to do what’s best for their students, many schools overlook the pitfalls of collecting, storing, and/or analyzing all of this data. Vance says a better approach is to set a record retention limit, then periodically delete the associated data. She also warns districts to be wary of software that claims to be able to identify threats, potential mental health issues and other red flags.

“This technology and science is still in its infancy, and often the [software] flags far more students than it accurately identifies,” Vance says. “While it is completely understandable that schools want to screen for self-harm or potential threats, the [software] may end up hurting more students than it helps.

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