The pandemic resulted in a shift to online learning, with many schools issuing devices (laptops, tablets) to students who otherwise would not have had online access. The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a think tank and advocacy organization, recently released two reports delving into whether students who rely on school-issued devices are subject to more monitoring than their peers who have their own.
Monitoring can take the form of teachers viewing students’ online activity in real time, closing tabs if they think too many are open or a student is engaging in distracting activity, switching tabs, blocking sites, and viewing browsing history. “Ed tech” software can block access to content deemed “adult” or containing keywords that have been flagged. Some applications have even allowed educators to view inside students’ homes without their or their families’ knowledge.
Monitoring can have unintended consequences. Students whose tabs are regularly closed are not allowed the opportunity to develop study and concentration skills. Students engaging in questionable activity based on their searches can be brought to the attention of disciplinary or law enforcement authorities; students using personal devices are not similarly exposed. Abused, suicidal, or other students in challenging personal circumstances looking for help online and believing their searches to be private can ended up being “outed,” potentially put at further risk, and their efforts to seek help chilled.
According to the CDT, many school-issued devices enable monitoring: teachers reported that monitoring software is used on 71% of school-issued devices, but only on 16% of personal devices. In addition, according to the CDT, “school-issued devices tend to enable tracking of student activity to a much greater extent than personal devices…. Because those students who are reliant on school-issued devices may be subject to more pervasive monitoring, this suggests that students in higher-poverty districts are subjected to a higher degree of monitoring than students in wealthier districts who are more likely to have their own devices.”
The CDT has called on the federal government to clarify monitoring requirements mandated by the Children’s Internet Protection Act, a federal law that imposes requirements on schools in return for providing discounted communications services and products. Furthermore, the CDT has asked school districts to ensure that they protect student privacy and address the “privacy and equity concerns” arising from monitoring. Moreover, the CDT has urged vendors of student monitoring software to provide greater transparency about their products.
There are some good reasons for monitoring, like ensuring device security and that all children can access online education and use ed tech. But it’s a slippery slope, and surveillance of poor children should not be a quid pro quo for their educations.
To eliminate or at least mitigate this aspect of the digital divide, school districts might consider making school-issued devices mandatory for all students, regardless of whether a child can afford one. Surely deep-pocketed tech companies would support this for the sake of fairness and equity. Nonetheless, schools should not be allowed to turn into surveillance states.
If your child is using a school-issued device, make sure you understand what monitoring is occurring.
***The information contained in this column is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US, CIPP/E