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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Should Teachers Be Allowed to Use Online Tools to Monitor Student Screens?

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 21, 2023 12 min read
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The new question of the week is:

How do you feel about tools like Go Guardian that allow teachers to monitor the desktops of students?

I’ve never used screen-monitoring tools, so can’t speak from experience.

But they leave me with feelings of uneasiness.

If students are working on laptops, do I check student screens when I’m walking around the classroom? Of course I do! At the same time, though, I’m checking to see how they are doing with their work, if they have any questions, and also asking them how their day is going.

The idea of just sitting at my desk and looking at everyone’s screens on my screen just doesn’t make me feel like I am doing my job (of course, it’s also possible that teachers could walk around looking at their laptop screen). But, monitoring everyone’s screens —whether I’m sitting or walking around— doesn’t seem to me to be conveying a message of trust to my students, either.

Let’s see what other educators with more direct experience have to say:

‘Begin by Setting Clear Expectations’

Stepan Mekhitarian serves as the director of innovation, instruction, assessment, and accountability at the Glendale Unified school district in California. He is a Google-certified trainer, a Microsoft innovative educator, Blended Learning Universe expert adviser, regular speaker at the California Assessment Conference, and an author for Corwin and Routledge:

Having a system in place is helpful for online safety. However, the topic must be approached with great care as it can become a slippery slope, which can shift the role of the teacher from a facilitator who guides students through exploration and learning to a full-time enforcer of computer-use policy.

Begin by setting clear expectations and establish a positive classroom culture so that the overwhelming majority of students will regularly meet expectations without the need for monitoring; this process will limit your need to regularly monitor computer usage with a tool like GoGuardian.

Screen-monitoring tools should not be used before creating a positive classroom culture with clear expectations. Using them before that time will lead to the tools being the primary driver for student behavior and that, in turn, will require consistent and frequent computer-usage enforcement, something no teacher pined for when they were first inspired to become an educator.


Increases Connections and Productivity

Donna L. Shrum is an educator, researcher, and freelance author in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She currently teaches social studies at Central High School in Woodstock, Va.:

Our school system uses Classwize as a tool to monitor the desktops of students. The 2022 EdTech Breakthrough Awards Program awarded Classwize the Classroom Management Solution Provider of the Year.

Classwize allows teachers to see all devices in class, including bring-your-own devices and personal devices. Before remote learning, I used this tool primarily to check on-task online behavior. That is now the least for which I use it.

During COVID, I discovered I could be online with a class via Zoom and also use Classwize to see who needed help. It was like walking around the room to see student screens, but this digital option was much quicker and more efficient. My big “ah-ha!” moment when I realized the versatility of the tool was when a student was struggling with completing an assignment. I could see his keystrokes in real time on his screen and see if he was beginning a response that showed he still didn’t understand the material. I clarified, and he changed the response before investing too much time.

When students are in writing workshop, I can periodically check how student writing is progressing and pop by a student desk if it appears help may be needed. Students also know they can ask a question about their writing, and I can send the response as a chat that the rest of the class can’t hear.

I could see who wasn’t yet in Gimkit, Kahoot, or other online learning games. I could also see who was participating in a class activity or who had walked away and left the screen. Soon, students came to expect that I could see their screens in real time and would refer me there. Students who were shy about sharing what they’d written could say, “Take a look at what I wrote and tell me if it’s good” and receive encouragement before sharing. Students practicing answering standardized questions could ask me a question while moving their cursor so I could see at what they were looking.

When I returned to in-person teaching and we had a six-foot distancing protocol, Classwize allowed me to continue seeing screens without walking around. A friend with preexisting health conditions teaching in a school system that allowed her to be behind plexiglass was concerned about not being able to move around among the students. I told her how I’d been using Classwize, and that became her solution.

I no longer have youthful vision, so I can actually see their screens much more clearly on Classwize than peeping over shoulders. I have the option to lock screens, close tabs, and chat one-on-one with a student. Students don’t even have to be in the classroom. They only have to be on their school-issued Chromebook during class time.

One of our science teachers said she prefers using Classwize to push out websites to use in class. Our school system has blocked some sites, and teachers have to request unblocking for student access. However, if a teacher shares the site via Classwize, students can access it during class, and then the site is still blocked the rest of the time.

If instructors introduce Classwize’s versatility at the start of a semester, students will be creative in finding uses for it to increase their connections and productivity in partnership with the teacher. They will also become used to teacher screen monitoring so that the original intention of Classwize automatically becomes less of an issue.


‘These Tools Have Their Own Risks’

Ryan Estrellado is a writer, educator, and data scientist. He is the author of the book The K–12 Educator’s Data Guidebook: Reimagining Practical Data Use in Schools and a co-author of Data Science in Education Using R:

In her best-selling book, Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neill argues that big data algorithms aren’t always the objective solutions we think they are. When things go wrong, these algorithms disproportionatelyi and negatively affect people in marginalized groups. Everything from where people go to college to whether they get approved for a loan is influenced by these algorithms.

Today, more than ever, educators use software tools designed to help students, but, as with all new technologies, these tools have their own risks.

So, what do we do about that? Do we abandon potentially helpful software altogether? Or do we accept the bad with the good? Like most complicated problems, the answers must be nuanced. Here are things educators should think about when they consider desktop monitoring software.

Tools Should Aid Good Professional Judgment

A very wise person once told me that data tools are part of our decisionmaking systems. They are not decisionmakers themselves. That means we as educators must know how we make decisions before we decide which software tools can help us.

One way to do that is through norms. Norms are guidelines we make that describe how we work. You may already have them for other areas. Some examples are meeting norms, decisionmaking norms, and conflict-resolution norms.

The goal here is to create something that guides how you use the features of desktop monitoring software. The norms should be an expression of your school district’s values, particularly ones about respecting the personal and individual lives of all students.

There are lots of ways to write norms. Here’s an example of a data tool norm I’d like to see at school districts:

We do not use data from our software as the only source of information for decisionmaking.

Once you have these norms internalized by your organization, the decision to use desktop monitoring software becomes clearer. It’s a matter of asking: Can we effectively use this software as a benefit for our students and an expression of our data-use norms?

How Tools Work Should Be Transparent

I feel better about using data tools when I know I can get information about how they work. That’s because using these tools inevitably leads to surprising results. When that happens, I want educators, not the software, to be in the driver’s seat. Educators must have assurances from software vendors that at any given point, results from the software can be explained in an understandable way.

Consider a scenario where a student gets flagged repeatedly for visiting websites during times they’re not supposed to. Or consider a scenario where a student gets flagged for not logging in to their laptop during remote learning time.

To help students, we need this information to be the start of a conversation, not the end of it. For that to happen, we must understand how the software decided to flag the student’s behavior.

The goal here is to have enough documentation for the software and a good relationship with the software’s creators. Ideally, both of these nurture conversations that help us understand how the software works and thus how to use the information to support our professional judgment.

Once you have two-way communication happening with the software’s creators, the decision to use desktop monitoring software becomes clearer. It’s a matter of asking yourself: Does the software and its creators offer the level of transparency we need to address the needs of our students on an individual basis?


Back to the original question: What do I think of desktop monitoring software for students?

For me, the important question isn’t should we or shouldn’t we use monitoring software. The important question is: Can we use these tools as an extension of our professional and ethical values? Because, while we may not use the size of data Cathy O’Neill writes about, we can still be part of a generation that learns to use these tools responsibly.


‘Instant Feedback’

George Farmer, Ed.D., is the author of the blog FarmerandtheBell, which provides solutions to current educational challenges. Follow @farmerg18:

Before the pandemic, my position on platforms that allow teachers to manage student desktops was no different from my position today, but not for the same reasons. Pre-pandemic, I was an advocate of such platforms to ensure students were on task, and if students could get past blocked websites, the extra set of eyes of teachers would instill hesitancy in students or face the chances of being quickly discovered and subject to school policy violations.

However, valuable lessons were learned during the pandemic that have changed my perspective on student desktop-management systems. During the pandemic, video-conferencing platforms often contained the chat feature. Chatting was a groundbreaking discovery during the pandemic, not because it was revolutionary but because it enabled introverts the opportunity to participate in class without fear.

Many learners are hesitant and fearful of voicing their opinions in class, and virtual learning unlocks introverts by enabling them to participate in discussions via the chat feature to the class or a private chat with the teacher. Participating through the chat feature allows teachers to assess introverted students.

Similarly, desktop-management dashboards allow teachers to not only communicate with students via a chat feature, but educators also can give real-time feedback to students. Educators can maximize time via virtual universal assessments in which students can attain instant feedback on assignments without their peers knowing.

Thanks to student-management dashboards like GoGuardian, students who are reluctant to speak in class can receive the same attention and feedback as extroverted students. Student desktop-management dashboards have created a level of equity for introverted students who were previously potentially penalized for not being outgoing.

With the ability to receive instant feedback and confidential communication between teachers and students, student desktop-management dashboards are a valuable tool to enhance the learning experience.


Thanks to Stepan Mekhitarian, Donna L. Shrum, Ryan Estrellado, and George Farmer, Ed.D. for sharing their responses.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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