Are Schools Pivoting Toward Big Data? Online Learning And Student Privacy

Schools Are Pivoting Toward Big Data

I was reading Bloomberg recently and a ‘Big Teacher, Big Data’ subheading got my attention.

While maintaining a student’s privacy is a focus for all educators, it may not be the individual teachers who are making the policies that enable the practices that might compromise that privacy.

The Rise Of Education Surveillance

In the Bloomberg newsletter, Bloomberg columnist Priya Anand writes:

“After the advent of social media almost two decades ago, kids’ personal lives moved online. During the pandemic, kids’ academic lives moved online too. Now, just as social media ebbed away at minors’ privacy, online learning is opening them up to unprecedented levels of surveillance.

More than 80% of teachers say their schools use software to monitor students’ online behavior, a recent survey found. Of those, only one in four said that tracking is limited to school hours.

Software monitoring kids has proliferated with the rise of Zoom school over the last pandemic-striken year and a half. It allows teachers to ensure that students are on-task and not exhibiting signs that might indicate they’re thinking about self harm. But the trend has also raised privacy alarm bells for some parents and observers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren. 

For a feature in this week’s issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, my colleague Mark Bergen and I profiled GoGuardian, one of the most popular makers of software that records and analyzes what schoolkids are doing online. You might not have heard of GoGuardian, but if you have children in school, there’s a good chance they already know all about it.

Entire state departments of education (Delaware, West Virginia) are GoGuardian customers, as is New York City, the biggest school district in the country. The company has a number of competitors, but is likely the largest of the bunch, with the potential reach of more than 23 million students. 

Now that schools are reopening for in-person class, it appears unlikely that digital monitoring will recede. At times, GoGuardian’s monitoring also extends to personal devices, such as a (sic) family laptops, when that device is logged into school accounts. GoGuardian says it’s up to schools to decide whether to turn that extending monitoring on, and declined to say how many do so.

The societal implications are murky. In the days of floppy disks and “computer class,” everyone went home and chatted with friends on AOL Instant Messenger. If that were now, tech startups and school administrators could keep watch on every moody away message posted by teenagers.

What’s the long-term impact of this kind of monitoring on kids? It’s hard to know, given how new these technologies are. One thing is clear, though: teachers and administrators love it, many parents don’t appear to mind. The classroom surveillance state appears to be here to stay.” 

You can find the newsletter here.