Reports highlight concerns with increased monitoring of student activity online

The Center for Democracy & Technology released a pair of reports on Sept. 21 detailing the concerning use of online monitoring software that can track student activity on devices like laptops or tablets, during a time when remote learning was the only educational option available to students throughout the country.

During the pandemic, K-12 schools rightfully moved quickly to provide devices like laptops and tablets to students to address inequities in technology access. Digital tools to facilitate remote classroom management or monitor for bullying, self-harm or inappropriate content were included on school-issued laptops and tablets, but so was monitoring software programs that researchers say are unduly intrusive and raise red flags for student equity and privacy protection.

For example, software that helps schools conduct digital surveillance through keyword tracking or website monitoring may misinterpret a student’s online behavior, flagging it as a concern or a potential discipline issue when it is not, said Elizabeth Laird, CDT’s director of Equity in Civic Technology Project.

One of the reports — Online and Observed: Student Privacy Implications of School-Issued Devices and Student Activity Monitoring Software — found that school-issued devices tend to track student activity to a much greater extent than personal devices (71 percent compared to 16 percent). This suggests that students in higher-poverty districts are subjected to more pervasive monitoring than students in wealthier districts, who are more likely to have access to personal devices.

These findings, paired with parent, teacher and student survey results from the second report, Student Activity Monitoring Software: Research Insights and Recommendations, suggest a potential chilling effect in student engagement. Among those surveyed:

  • 58 percent of students who report that their school uses monitoring software agree with the statement, “I do not share my true thoughts or ideas because I know what I do online is being monitored.”
  • 47 percent of teachers and 51 percent of parents reported concern that student online activity monitoring could have unintended consequences like “outing” LGBTQ+ students.
  • 61 percent of parents surveyed expressed concern that such software and data collection could harm students if used or shared in a disciplinary context.

“This research demonstrates how the privacy and security of personal devices is a luxury not all can afford,” CDT President and CEO Alexandra Givens said in a statement. “Constant online monitoring — especially of students who cannot afford or don’t have access to personal devices — risks creating disparities in the ways student privacy is protected nationwide.”

Monitoring must be done responsibly

Despite expressing concern over some aspects of student online monitoring, many of the adults surveyed still said the potential safety benefits may outweigh the privacy risks. Overall, 78 percent of teachers and 75 percent of parents surveyed said they strongly or somewhat agree that the surveillance keeps students safe by identifying problematic online behavior, such as visiting websites about mass shootings, searching for instructions on how to harm themselves, or identifying activity that suggests substance abuse.

With online monitoring here to stay, at least to some extent, the reports detailed several main findings and recommendations. In addition to those listed above, researchers found that LEAs:

  1. Feel compelled to monitor student activity to satisfy perceived legal requirements and protect student safety.
  2. Report communicating privacy expectations to students and families but are unsure about how much detail about student activity monitoring to include in those messages.
  3. Are holding device and student activity monitoring software vendors accountable on privacy and security through data sharing and privacy agreements.
  4. Are looking for ways to improve the privacy and security protections for devices and data shared with student activity monitoring vendors.

Providing information in an accessible, easy-to-understand format can help LEAs empower families in their decisions about education technology and increase trust in the district’s use of data. LEAs should inform parents and students about the specific data collected, how that information is used, and with whom the district shares data. Additionally, minimizing data collection overall can help limit data use outside of its intended context.

As an alternative to student monitoring software, researchers also note that districts can promote parents and teachers monitoring of students’ online activities and provide learning on digital literacy and online citizenship, which can limit the unnecessary collection of data about students.