When dozens of Millions of students suddenly had to learn remotely, and schools loaned laptops and tablets to those who didn’t have them. But these devices usually come with monitoring software, marketed as a way to protect students and keep them on task. Now, some privacy advocates, parents and teachers say the programs have created a new digital divide, limiting what some students can do and putting them at increased risk of disciplinary action.
One day last fall, the son of Ramsay Hotman, who was a fifth-grader in California’s West Contra Costa School District, came to her with a problem: He was trying to write a social studies report when the tabs on his browser kept closing. Every time he tried to open a new study tab, it would disappear.
It was not an accident. When Hotman emailed the teacher, she said she was told, “Oh, surprise, we have this new program where we can monitor everything your child does throughout the day and we can see exactly what they’re seeing, and we can close all their tabs if we want.”
Hootman soon learned that all school-issued devices in the district use Securly student monitoring software which allows teachers to see a student’s screen in real time and even close tabs if they detect a student is off assignment. During class time, students were expected to open only two tabs. Following Hootman’s complaint, the area raised the limit to five tabs.
But Hootman says she and other parents would not have chosen school-issued devices if they had known the extent of the monitoring. (“I’m fortunate that this is an option available to us,” she says.) She also worries that when monitoring software automatically closes tabs or otherwise successive multitasking, it makes it difficult for students to develop their own ability to focus and build discipline.
“As parents, we spend a lot of time helping our kids figure out how to balance school work with other things,” she says. “Obviously the internet is a huge distraction, and we’re working with them on being able to manage distractions. You can’t do that if everything has already been decided for you.”
Ryan Phillips, director of communications for the school district, says Securly’s features are designed to protect students’ privacy, are only required for district-issued devices, and teachers can only view a student’s computer during school hours. Securly did not respond to a request for comment prior to publishing this article. After initially publishing it, a Securly spokesperson said district administrators can disable screen display, the product notifies students when a class session begins, and schools can restrict teachers to start class sessions only during school hours.
in a Report earlier this monthThe Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit technology policy organization based in Washington, D.C., said the software installed on computers issued by schools created essentially two student classes. Those from lower-income families were more likely to use computers issued by schools, and therefore more likely to be monitored.
“Our hypothesis was that there are certain groups of students, most likely those who attend lower-income schools, who will be more dependent on school-issued devices and therefore will be subject to more monitoring and tracking than their peers who can essentially afford to choose,” explains Elizabeth Laird, one of the Report authors.
The report found that Hispanic families were more dependent on school equipment than their white counterparts and were more likely to express concerns about the potential disciplinary consequences of the probation program.
The group said that monitoring software, from companies like Securly and GoGuardian, offers a range of capabilities, from blocking access to adult content and reporting certain keywords (insults, profanity, terms associated with self-harm, violence, etc.) So. View student screens in real time and make changes.
Clarice Brazas, a Philadelphia Public Schools teacher, is concerned about the ability to monitor screens remotely. The district released Chromebooks to eligible students, but was concerned about the disciplinary consequences of probation programs in an area where the majority of students are non-white and low-income.
“I don’t know that my job as a teacher is to monitor what content students are looking for when they are at home,” she says. “I consider this to be the family’s business.”