Privacy & Security


Teachers Are Watching Students’ Screens During Remote Learning. Is That Invasion of Privacy?
    

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 02, 2021 16 min read
Image is a close up of an illustrated robotic eyeball.

At first, Ramsey Hootman thought something might be wrong with her son’s school-issued laptop. All of a sudden, most of the browser tabs he’d opened had closed, seemingly of their own accord.

It took a little while to figure out that the culprit was actually a teacher, who’d used a tool called Securly Classroom to view her son’s screen and close out all but two of his tabs—an action that, to both mother and son’s frustration, gunked up an assignment he’d been trying to research.

Remote classroom-management tools like Securly Classroom and its competitors give teachers an expansive, real-time look into what their students are viewing or working on. As Hootman discovered, they also contain a panoply of features, like the ability to freeze a student’s screen, or to call up, block, or limit tabs.

In interviews, some teachers said they use the tools in productive ways rather than to spy or punish, and that the tools have smoothed out some of the tough work of remote schooling. But the systems also raise questions about an ever-expanding surveillance apparatus in American schools.

“My main objection is the personal level of the surveillance. It’s not generalized; it’s not a ‘ping’ from some student who used some trigger word. His teachers are looking, in real time, at what he’s doing,” said Hootman, whose children attend school in the West Contra Costa, Calif., district.

The companies that sell the products say the tools help replicate good brick-and-mortar classroom practices. Just like circulating about a classroom, a teacher using them can ensure students are on task, and quickly assess who might need some additional, personalized help.

But one thing is abundantly clear: Use of remote classroom-management tools has undoubtedly increased over the last year as millions of students learned full-time from home.

Districts have scrambled to get millions of devices into the hands of students and to respond to the needs of their teachers, most of whom have never taught remotely before and are desperately seeking ways to engage students. And, noted privacy experts, the nation’s experiment with remote learning has blurred the line between home and school to an unprecedented degree.

“When you’re at home, this monitoring starts to feel much more invasive and creepier. But it is going to continue long after students are no longer primarily at home,” said Amelia Vance, the director of youth and education privacy at the nonprofit Forum on Privacy.

“So there’s the need for clear information from schools that have installed these products, why they’re installed, what the data protection is, and what the rights of students and parents are,” she said. “It’s something we rarely see in student privacy conversations.”

How do remote classroom-management systems work?

The monitoring of students’ web use is hardly new. Beginning with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, in 2000, districts receiving federal school-connectivity funds had to install internet filters on their hardware and devices to protect children from obscene content.

Actual thumbnail-like monitoring of individual devices also dates back decades. One provider of classroom-monitoring software, LanSchool, began in 1986, when all school computers were hardwired in labs.

The movement toward cloud computing and increased fears about student safety—coupled with ambiguities in the CIPA law, which did not detail where surveillance should stop—means that as the tools have evolved, they’ve grown more powerful.

Two of the top companies in the space, GoGuardian and Securly, both got their start by providing cloud filtering services to districts, but have since expanded to other products. Their remote classroom management offerings are respectively known as GoGuardian Teacher and Securly Classroom.

The remote classroom-management systems work like this: They are extensions to the Chrome browser that are deployed on students’ district accounts.

Teachers activate a session at the beginning of a synchronous remote class. Then, they can see thumbnails of each student’s screen, review the tabs they have open, and scan the web address of the websites they’ve visited. They can also freeze students’ screens, restrict the number of tabs students have open, close tabs if students are on YouTube, Spotify, or other sites not related to the day’s lessons, and push out links and messages to students. Students, for their part, can “raise their hands” virtually to request help.

The systems do alert students when a session is beginning. And an extension icon or indicator in the browser signals when their screens can be viewed.

While designed primarily for Chromebooks—by far the most common classroom device—they can be made to work on other hardware. And depending on how permissions are set, the services can also work when a student uses a personal device rather than a district one to access their school account, if the Chrome browser is set up to “sync” extensions.

Neither GoGuardian nor Securly’s products permit districts to turn on device cameras remotely, or see into students’ homes, officials at the companies underscored. (There have, however, been a few snafus stemming from how the services interact with other tech applications.)

Teachers say the tools enable efficient feedback to students


Among teachers who regularly use them, the tools appear to be broadly popular.

Kathy Richardson, a high school biology and marine ecology teacher, teaches in the Louisa County, Va., district and for a regional online learning collaborative. She’s used GoGuardian Teacher for several years, and she believes the pandemic has actually helped refine her use of it.

Before, she said, she used it mostly to make sure students were on task. But now she uses it to pinpoint which students need coaching on tricky tasks like calculating a standard error for their lab reports.

“For me, the biggest aid in using it has been identifying where they’re getting stuck, where these misconceptions and misunderstandings are,” she said. “Before, I would go back and explain the whole section. Now I can get very specific about what’s wrong; maybe it’s a graphing issue, not a content issue.”

She likes being able to pop into students’ screens so she can suggest they change their y-axis or put their data into a bar graph. Sometimes, students ask her to view their screens so she can double check their work. Most of all, she said, it has made instruction stronger during the pandemic.

“Even though the curriculum is a little slimmed-down, I think they’re getting deeper in it than they would have otherwise,” she said.

Enoch Kwok, the director of technology for the Oak Park district in California, believes most of the school district’s teachers use it for similar purposes.

“I don’t think a lot of our teachers are playing police and trying to catch kids out. If you make the lesson relevant and engaging enough, students will focus on that instead of goofing off,” he said.

It is hard to say precisely how common the services are: They’re often bundled with the companies’ other security products. And like other privately held ed-tech firms, the companies don’t share proprietary financial data. But both Securly and GoGuardian officials said that their tools have been popular.

The pandemic has accelerated interest in Securly Classroom, which the company launched in 2019 after acquiring its progenitor in a merger. Even before COVID-19 hit, though, the company was seeing tremendous growth in its sales, said Jarrett Volzer, the general manager of mobile device management and classroom technologies for Securly.

GoGuardian, which launched the Teacher service in 2015, offered it to districts for free in the spring of the 2019-20 school year, after the pandemic caused nearly every school in the country to shut down. About 20 million students and 14,000 schools now use a GoGuardian service of some kind, a spokesman for the organization said.

And according to a February survey of about 1,200 educators conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, more than two-thirds of respondents believe their districts will continue to offer remote learning options even after the pandemic ends.

Communicating with parents about monitoring tools is key

District technology officials have significant latitude to customize how the tools work and to constrain the hours when teachers can launch the live sessions, typically during regular school hours. They also tend to give teachers significant latitude on whether to use the remote classroom-management tools.

That’s why the companies say they encourage districts to be purposeful in explaining to parents how they work.

“I would underscore and double click on the idea that while we provide the technology, schools use it to enact their policies,” said Teddy Hartman, the head of privacy for GoGuardian. “A fair amount of the questions we get are parents who feel that the school system did not communicate well with them.”

Communicating all those nuances is difficult, though, and probably also explains why some parents shrug at the use of the tools while others like Hootman, the California mom, feel caught out.

Hootman said that before the incident with Securly Classroom, she’d made her peace with some degree of school surveillance. She knew certain websites were blocked and that her sons’ documents could be read by administrators. (One of her sons, in fact, once got flagged by the district’s safety auditing service when he jokingly used the Klingon phrase “Today is a good day to die.”)

But she was annoyed by how she found out about Securly Classroom.

“What really got me was that as soon as [the school] got [this tool], they escalated to the most restrictive possible environment. And they just really expected us to be glad about this,” she said.

Tracey Logan, the district’s technology director, said it added Classroom at the start of this semester, as teachers asked for more help with online learning. West Contra Costa doesn’t mandate that teachers deploy the service; some educators like all its bells and whistles, and others use it minimally, she said.

In that district, Securly Classroom has been popular for teachers of very young students, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. In those classes, age, language barriers, or other issues mean getting everyone logged into and set up in a remote session is harder so the tool helps save valuable instructional time. Math teachers also like it.

But communicating about the tool in the 28,000-student district has fallen primarily to individual principals and classroom teachers. And Logan said she understands why parents might feel uncomfortable depending on how they learned about it.

“I can see how psychologically, they might think: Can they see through that webcam? Are they capturing keystrokes? I get how it can feel weird,” she said. (The service does not do those things.)

In other districts, the problem has been exacerbated when the programs deploy on families’ personal devices.

As soon as they got [this tool], they escalated to the most restrictive environment.

Chris Carman, a high school science teacher in the Kent City, Ohio, district, only learned about the tool’s reach only after he got an email from his son’s science teacher, admonishing the 7th grader for working on a social studies assignment during class. (Carman’s son had been using the family’s own device, not the school system’s.)

Being off-task is a legitimate concern for teachers to bring up, Carman agreed. But the message got diluted by how intrusive the notification felt. (The district, he said, sent an email about GoGuardian Teacher to parents shortly after Carman inquired whether his son could opt out of the sessions. The district’s tech director did not immediately return an email seeking comment.)

“Frankly, I was just offended by the disregard of our privacy. I know the district, and others, see this as technically students are in school. But my son’s not using their device, and he’s not using their WiFi or Internet connection. That was what really bothered me,” Carman said.

“It was the consent aspect of it; if they’d asked me beforehand, I would have had time to think about it,” he continued. “Most importantly, I would have had time to talk to my son.”

Some students worry about monitoring, while others not so much

Just what do students whose daily school activities are being monitored by these programs make of it?

Some are predictably cross that they can’t sneak off to play Fortnite or watch YouTube when they’re supposed to be analyzing “Song of Solomon” or working on trigonometry ratios. But others have expressed bewilderment or anger, finding the surveillance intrusive or dystopian.

At a minimum, students are paying attention to the debate.

It was a high school newspaper, the Grizzly, that first reported Oak Park’s pilot program allowing GoGuardian Teacher to stretch to families’ personal devices.

“I think it’s a little scary to know that my teachers can see what I’m doing. It would be more beneficial for teachers to find a less invasive way to limit cheating,” the newspaper quoted one senior as saying.

J.P. Kerrane, a 15-year-old freshman in the Boulder Valley district in Colorado, says some students there definitely feel that someone’s constantly “watching over their shoulder” when teachers use the classroom-management program. Many teachers in the district have chosen not to deploy GoGuardian Teacher for that reason even though they have access to it, he said.

Other students don’t sweat it, he said—their reasoning roughly paralleling school district officials nationally who assert there’s nothing to fear about monitoring if students are following the rules. Some of Kerrane’s peers, in fact, have even made funny memes about GoGuardian—like one which depicts the horrified expression of a teacher perusing student-written fan fiction.

But personally, he’s not so sure.

“I think I’m more privacy-conscious than most. I know everything I type into Google Docs is being sent to an algorithm to see if I have suicidal tendencies, so I have to rethink what I’m doing. I keep a very strict separation between my school and private data footprint,” said Kerrane, who is already taking an AP Computer Science class and aspires to work in coding or computer systems someday.

And, he said, it feels unfair that students who can afford to have personal devices of their own can more easily circumnavigate monitoring than students who have to rely on district-issued devices.

As both students and parents have discovered, the easiest workaround is to use a nonschool-issued device and log into a second account not tied to the school network. That typically isn’t possible on a school-issued Chromebook.

The difference raises concerns about whether some groups of students are being observed more than others. The mistrust comes because by nearly all measures, disadvantaged students and, particularly, Black students are already monitored more than other students in other aspects of schooling, such as policing, disciplinary practices, and dress codes.

(Some districts like Oak Park that have “lease to own” programs for their school devices actually make more privacy an incentive. They offer parents who purchase the devices the opportunity to turn off filtering during nonschool hours.)

The loudest dust-ups about the classroom-management services, though, seem to have come from wealthier, more privileged communities. The Montclair, N.J., district, in early March temporarily halted use of GoGuardian Teacher in response to a parent outcry.

Are we conditioning students to surveillance?

For Vance, the privacy expert, it all comes down to context. In general, she worries less about remote classroom-management tools than the companies’ other services, since there’s at least a good case to be made that the management tools be useful in helping schools to fulfill their core job of teaching.

Still, communicating that to families can be done well or poorly, she said.

“Having someone come to you and say, ‘I know what you were doing on the internet,’ does not create a trusted relationship. So there’s really a necessity to make sure that the monitoring that is occurring is really necessary and really fulfilling its purpose,” she said. “Classroom-management software, when it’s narrow and during class when students know about it, is going to be narrowly tailored. A lot of the other monitoring isn’t.”

Parents should also be informed what districts do with whatever metadata they collect via any of their online tools, where it’s stored, and how often it’s purged, she said.

And there are substantive differences in the services themselves. At least one other provider of remote classroom-management tools, Lightspeed, permits teachers to record students’ screens, not just observe in real time. (Neither GoGuardian or Securly permits recording.)

I just think we are creating all these environments where students think ... that they're always being watched.

Richardson, the Virginia teacher, concurs that it’s partly her job to make sure students understand precisely what the program does. She thinks that’s one reason her students are at ease with it.

“I made sure I told them about it at the beginning of the year, so it’s very transparent that I’m using it,” she said. “And I tell them I only use it while I’m in their class, so I don’t do it from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon.”

At a broader level, it’s still potentially worrisome that schools are layering so many student-surveillance tools on top of a social media ecosystem that already prioritizes oversharing, some privacy experts warned. Especially, they said, in the context of a tech-saturated world where everything from Alexa to home appliances is already potentially watching or listening.

“I just think we are all creating these environments where students think in this weird panopticon way that they’re always being watched, and they can’t expect any privacy under any circumstances,” said Barbara Fedders, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, who wrote a 2019 law review article about the legal implications of surveillance for school districts.

(The panopticon refers to a prison design that, in theory, improves behavior among inmates because they don’t know precisely when guards are monitoring. )

It’s unclear yet whether surveillance could change students’ behavior long-term, as the panopticon theory suggests, said Vance. It might alter their creativity and expressiveness in ways we don’t understand, she said.

Or—and some research already suggests this is the case—perhaps students may simply assume that surveillance is everywhere, put it out of mind, and go back to behaving as usual.

At least for now, some parents say what they’ve learned about the classroom-management systems makes them wary. And they’re still wrestling with the larger implications.

Carman’s son is now logging into his remote schooling on a different browser. That means he can’t access all the teacher-interaction functions that would be available to him in GoGuardian Teacher sessions, but his screen won’t be watched.

Carman is troubled by the conversation he had with his son when he explained how the monitoring service worked: His son was not all that surprised.

“I’m realizing that with this generation—two if you count the millennials—not only do they not have this expectation of privacy, they don’t even know what privacy means,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as Teachers Are Watching Students’ Screens During Remote Learning. Is That Invasion of Privacy?

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