Classroom Technology

Software That Monitors Students May Hurt Some It’s Meant to Help

By Alyson Klein — August 08, 2022 2 min read
Students using computers.
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Districts increasingly rely on monitoring software to keep students safe and on-task when they use school-issued digital devices, but the practice may do more harm than good, according to a report out this month by the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit that focuses on technology policy.

Monitoring programs can allow educators to keep an eye on students’ emails, messages, documents, and search queries, in part to scan for mental health problems or violent threats. The software can also pinpoint when students have logged into their device and for how long, and even give teachers a real-time glimpse at what’s on their students’ computer screens. Eighty-nine percent of teachers surveyed by the CDT say their districts use some sort of monitoring software, a 5 percent hike over last year.

But in addition to referring kids who may be troubled to counseling services, the software is often used for discipline purposes, the CDT found. In fact, 78 percent of teachers whose school uses monitoring software say it has helped identify students for disciplinary purposes. Just 54 percent of those teachers say the programs have been used to connect students to a counselor, therapist, or social worker for help.

Districts have also used the software to identify students as part of the LGBTQ community without their consent. Thirteen percent of all students at schools that use student activity monitoring say they or another student they know who is LGBTQ has been outed because of the software.

All of this is having a chilling effect on students’ online behavior, the survey found. About half of students said they agreed with the statement, “I do not share my true thoughts or ideas because I know what I do online may be monitored.” And about 80 percent said they were more careful about their searches because they know their school is keeping tabs on their online activities.

“We’ve found that nearly every school in the country is giving devices to students—and monitoring is hurting them,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, the president and CEO of the CDT, in a statement. “When you combine the resurgence of violence in schools with the mental health crisis among kids, schools are surveilling students’ activities more than ever. But these efforts to make students safer more often result in disciplining students instead.”

What’s more, teachers often play a significant role in figuring out how to handle potential problems surfaced by the software, with 65 percent saying they are responsible for following up on the alerts it generates. Those alerts can flag everything from whether a student is off task, to whether they are at risk of hurting themselves or others. Despite that, just 31 percent of teachers say they have gotten guidance on how to use the monitoring systems securely.

In response to the findings, the CDT and other non-profit organizations sent a letter earlier this month to Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education urging her to “curb [the] harms” to student privacy and mental health as a result of the monitoring software through guidance and, if necessary, enforcement.

The report was informed by a survey of 1,606 6th- to 12th-grade parents and 1,008 6th- to 10th-grade teachers, as well as two surveys of 9th- to 12th-grade students conducted in late spring.

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