Classroom Technology

Monitoring or Blocking What Students Do Online Poses All Kinds of Problems

By Arianna Prothero — September 20, 2023 4 min read
Photo of high school student in classroom using tablet computers.
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Schools are increasingly relying on technology to collect student data and monitor students’ behavior online. But they’re not giving equal consideration to the consequences of these technological strategies, argues a new report from the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit group that promotes digital rights.

Among them: banning students from accessing important information; putting students’ data at risk to exploitation by hackers; and opening up new avenues for overzealous disciplinary approaches for at-risk student groups.

And with recent advancements in artificial intelligence, these problems are poised to grow significantly, concludes the report, which was released Sept. 20.

The report found—based on surveys—that growing numbers of parents and high school students are worried about technologies that monitor students’ online activities. At the same time, teachers report an increase in schools monitoring students’ personal online activity.

Technologies that monitor students’ online activity have become more popular in schools as a way to respond to rising gun violence and mental health issues among students. Nearly 9 in 10 teachers say that their school monitors students’ online activities, and 40 percent say that their school monitors students’ activity on their personal devices such as when a student uses the school’s network or is logged into a school account. Thirty-seven percent of teachers say that their school or district monitor what students post publicly on social media.

Teachers and students report that certain groups are more likely to get in trouble as a result of their schools’ monitoring technology.

Special education teachers and teachers who work in schools that receive Title I funding were more likely to say that they knew of a student who was contacted by law enforcement due to something their school’s online monitoring system flagged.

And LGBTQ+ students report being disciplined as a result of that monitoring more than their non-LGBTQ+ peers.

The percent of students and parents who agree that the benefits of that kind of monitoring outweighs the risks has declined.

When the Center for Democracy & Technology surveyed parents and high school students on this issue for the 2021-22 school year, 63 percent of both groups said the potential benefits are greater than the risks. But those numbers declined substantially the following year, when 52 percent of students and 55 percent of parents said the benefits were worth the risks.

‘This is amounting to a digital book ban’

Some of these technologies are also getting in the way of students’ learning, the survey results show—especially software used in many school districts to filter or block what students can see online.
“Over aggressive filtering and blocking can actually serve as a barrier to completing an assignment,” said Elizabeth Laird, the director of equity in civic technology at the Center for Democracy in Technology, speaking during an Education Writers Association webinar with reporters.

Nearly 3 out of 4 students say that such software has made completing school assignments harder, and half of teachers who work in schools that use filtering software agree that students are barred from seeing information that will help them “learn as a student” or “grow as a person.”

LGBTQ+ students were more likely to report this as an issue. And their concerns are backed up by many teachers, about one-third of whom said that LGBTQ+ and race-related content is more likely to get blocked by their school’s internet filtering system.

And that gets at another major theme of the report: That monitoring and internet filtering software used by schools is effectively acting as a ban on this information but getting far less attention than efforts to ban books on these same topics from school libraries and classrooms.

The report says that although the original intent of filtering software was to bar students from accessing explicit, adult content, it risks being used by school administrators to restrict students’ access to LGBTQ+ and race-related content.

Filtering software can become a way for school districts to impose their values, said Laird.

“This is amounting to a digital book ban,” she said.

Teachers in Title I schools and special education teachers are more likely to say they have seen this happen in their schools, according to the report.

Student data privacy is a top concern for parents, but not teachers

Finally, protecting the vast quantity of data schools collect and store on students is a concern to a large majority of parents, especially those whose children receive special education services. Meanwhile, teachers report being far less concerned about student data privacy and security.

Eighty-six percent of parents who have received notice that their child’s school experienced a data breach say that they are concerned about school privacy and security, while 70 percent of parents who have not received a notification said they are concerned. Schools are a prime target for cyber criminals because they are a source of so much data and their networks can be relatively easy to breach.

One in five parents surveyed said that their child’s school has experienced a data breach.

Meanwhile, 37 percent of teachers say they are concerned about student data privacy, down from 42 percent in the 2021-22 school year.

The report drew mostly from surveys of high school students and the parents and teachers of middle and high school students from July to August, as well as some surveys conducted in previous years by the Center for Democracy & Technology.


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