Many school districts across the nation expanded efforts to provide students with laptops and tablets to help them succeed in the virtual classroom; this effort included introducing student activity monitoring software aimed in part at facilitating remote classroom management and driving student engagement. However, according to a recent report by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), these tools can become overly intrusive.

The CDT uncovered that K-12 schools offering remote and hybrid lessons might use monitoring software that lets them watch students’ screens in real-time, scan their emails, review their browsing histories, and otherwise closely observe online activities. Students who used personal devices might only be monitored when logged into school portals, for example. However, students using school-provided laptops and tablets may have all activities on the devices surveilled, including those taking place outside of school hours or portals.

The CDT interviewed nine personnel from five different local education agencies, including district-level administrators and IT directors, to learn how they used and viewed the tools. According to some participants, the goals behind such surveillance include checking that students are engaging with virtual lessons, watching for signs that might indicate mental health emergencies, and monitoring to catch potential external hackers and malicious account takeovers.

However, despite the potential advantages of closely tracking students, there are also risks.

“We are having some pretty big meetings right now to discuss how we evaluate the concerns that come from [student activity monitoring software] and escalate them more thoughtfully,” one participant said.

The report found that such intrusive surveillance methods risk uncovering private personal information and increase the likelihood of misunderstandings with the software in terms of student communications, which can trigger unnecessary or excessive disciplinary actions, such as contacting the police.

Additionally, participants said surveillance is in part encouraged by the Federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), legislation which states that schools that receive Federal aid for broadband services are obliged to take steps to safeguard children online, including monitoring students. However, CDT emphasized that the legislation does not require schools to track students’ internet use. It urged schools to alter their actions in fulfilling CIPA requirements in a less intrusive manner.

The CDT is also seeking Federal action in further protecting the privacy rights of K-12 students. In a letter to Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ), and Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), the CDT urged Congress to protect student privacy, expression, and safety by updating CIPA requirements. Specifically asking clarification, “that CIPA does not require broad, invasive, and constant surveillance of students’ lives online, or by asking the Federal Communications Commission to clarify the Act.”

In addition to the CDT, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Learner Equity, Getting Smart, Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership, InnovateEDU, Next Century Cities, and State Educational Technology Directors Association signed the letter.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk State and Local Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.
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