5 ways schools can more fairly and safely monitor students’ online activities

Students in higher-poverty districts are subjected to more monitoring than those in wealthier districts, research finds
By: | September 27, 2021
(Thomas Park/Unsplash)(Thomas Park/Unsplash)

Student privacy and equity could be two casualties of educators’ Herculean efforts to hand out millions of laptops and tablets to connect families after the COVID shut down last spring, an advocacy group says.

More than 80% of teachers reported that district-owned devices used online monitoring software to track student activity outside of school hours, according to the “Online and Observed” report released by the Center for Democracy & Technology this week.

“This research demonstrates how the privacy and security of personal devices is a luxury not all can afford,” Alexandra Givens, the Center’s president and CEO, said in a statement accompanying the report. “Constant online monitoring—especially of students who cannot afford or don’t have access to personal devices—risks creating disparities in the ways student privacy is protected nationwide.”

The report recognized that district leaders feel compelled to protect students by monitoring their online activity. The software allows school staff to remotely view students’ computer screens, open applications, block sites, scan student communications and view browsing histories.

However, wealthier students are far more likely to have access to their own devices, which are far less likely to have the tracking software installed, the research found. Students in higher-poverty districts are therefore subjected to more monitoring than are children in wealthier districts.

And more than 60% of parents surveyed expressed concerned that the data collected could be used in a disciplinary context, the report says.

Other teachers and parents were worried that monitoring could have unintended consequences such as outing LGBTQ+ students.

Districts may feel the need to deploy the software based on a misinterpretation of Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requirements, said Elizabeth Laird, director of the Center’s Equity in Civic Technology Project.

The report covers five policy recommendations for protecting student privacy:

  1. Provide transparency regarding student activity monitoring.
  2. Minimize data collected by monitoring software on school-issued devices.
  3. Mitigate inequities arising from school-issued devices and student activity monitoring.
  4. Maintain control of student data when shared with activity monitoring vendors.
  5. Build capacity within the school system and among communities on how to close the homework gap while protecting students.

The organization is also encouraging federal officials to clarify CIPA’s requirements and offer “recommendations on how school districts can close the ‘homework gap’ while still protecting students’ privacy,” Laird said.

Several civil rights and education advocacy organizations—such as the ACLU, the Center for Democracy & Technology, Getting Smart, Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership, InnovateEDU, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association—have signed a letter supporting the call for clarifications of CIPA’s monitoring standards.

The letter also urges policymakers to codify student privacy practices as federal funds are dispersed to provide school-issued devices.

“Monitoring software may perpetuate the very harms it seeks to prevent,” the letter says. “Systematic monitoring of online activity can reveal sensitive information about students’ personal lives, such as their sexual orientation, or cause a chilling effect on their free expression, political organizing, or discussion of sensitive issues such as mental health.”

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