Spying on student laptops: Teachers just can’t win

Friday, Feb 26, 2010 11:50 am
William Barnes

So there is this school in Philadelphia that has a laptop program. Unfortunately, it turned out that the laptops had monitoring software on them and, even worse, the school was using the software to check in on kids at home. This led to Blake Robbins getting disciplined for eating Mike & Ikes candy in his bedroom (granted, it does look like some sort of crazy futuristic hallucinogenic pill). This post has nothing to do with that school.

Instead, I want to talk about New York City Intermediate School 339 (they ran out of war heroes and presidents, I guess). This school also has a laptop program. Instituted by the new principal Jason Levy in 2005, the laptop program seems to have saved the school. In 2005, 9% of students performed at grade level in math. Through 2009, the school saw year-over-year improvements to a current 62% of students performing at grade level. Kids are learning how to use word processors and spreadsheets; they’re blogging; they’re engaging in environmental and political activism.

It all sounds great, I think, but Cory Doctorow disagrees with me. Well, not with me… Technically, I disagree with him… Quiet you, this is my blog. He disagrees with me.

In light of the Philadelphia scandal, Cory posted a link to the PBS story with a comment about how it must suck being a kid today and one teacher’s comments he (well, the source) finds particular horrible. To quote from the quote that Cory quoted:

A few weeks ago, Frontline premiered a documentary called “Digital Nation”. In one segment, the vice-principle of Intermediate School 339, Bronx, NY, Dan Ackerman, demonstrates how he “remotely monitors” the students’ laptops for “inappropriate use”. (his demonstration begins at 4:36)

He says “They don’t even realize we are watching,” “I always like to mess with them and take a picture,” and “9 times out of 10, THEY DUCK OUT OF THE WAY.

He says the students “use it like it’s a mirror” and he watches. He says 6th and 7th graders have their cameras activated. It looks like the same software used by the Pennsylvania school that is being investigated for covertly spying on students through their webcams.

It does sound pretty bad when you put it that way. But it is taken entirely out of context. First, it’s important to note that the laptops are for in-class use only (the kids aren’t taking them home and from the looks of it they might not even use the same one each day). Second, in the segment in question, he demonstrates how they can connect to a computer and view the desktop. They happen to connect to a computer where the student is running Photo Booth to fix her hair instead of working. He explains what Photo Booth is and that the kids use it like a mirror. Then he clicks the “Take Picture” button in Photo Booth. Important to note: he doesn’t take a picture on his computer, he causes Photo Booth to take one. If you’ve ever used Photo Booth, you’ll know this means the screen darkens, a count down appears (3…2…1…), and the screen flashes bright white for half a second. He has a little chuckle, the kid shuts down Photo Booth and goes back to work.

This seems like exactly the attitude I want a teacher to have. It shows he has a sense of humour. But people try to make him sound like a creep. Why is it that every time a teacher demonstrates a sense of humour or creativity, somebody has to give them bad press? Just last week, there were the two teachers who did a reverse (girl sitting, guy dancing) lap dance during a pep rally in Winnipeg. The teachers have been suspended for their innappropriate behaviour. Here, we have a teacher who plays a harmless joke on a student to get her to go back to work and people are twisting him into some sort of pervert or criminal. I read Boing Boing every day. It’s great, but it really can be as reactionary and shallow as Fox News. Getting attacked from the right and the left, no wonder teachers are so cranky all of the time.

Plenty of people aren’t just against the “taking pictures” but rather the very fact that monitoring is happening in the first place. I think it’s completely appropriate for elementary school officials to monitor laptop use in class (particularly on school-owned laptops being used for assigned computer-based work). It’s the equivalent of a teacher walking up and down the aisles and checking that students are working. Who hasn’t had a teacher walk up behind them when they’re passing notes and clear their throat or confiscate their paper fortune teller? Granted, it’d be a bit nicer if students got a little popup when the teacher connected, but I don’t think that is entirely necessary.

Context matters when you’re talking about privacy. When you’re in class, your expectations are different than when you’re at home. The laptops are given (ie: free) for a specific purpose in a specific place. The school can set what conditions it wants on their use.