Leaders and Monitors: The best and the worst of education technology

Last week I attended the Holyrood Connect Learning Through Technology event where I saw a rather jawdropping demonstration of the very best and very worst that education technology has to offer. The best, and it really was wonderful, came from teachers Natalie Lockhead and Nicola Paterson, and pupils Rebecca and Stephen from Kirklandneuk Primary School, who are part of the school’s Digital Leaders Network. The Digital Leaders Network encourages children who are confident with using all kinds of technology to support their teachers and peers by sharing their skills and knowledge, while at the same time enabling the children to develop confidence, literacy and skills for life.

Stephen and Rebecca stood up in front of an audience of over a hundred delegates and spoke confidently and articulately about the importance of the Digital Leaders initiative and how much they enjoyed and benefitted from being part of it. Inspirational has become a rather throwaway term used to describe speakers, but these young people really, truly, were an inspiration.

Their honesty, enthusiasm and willingness to share was in stark contrast to the previous presenters and event sponsors Lightspeed Systems who presented their “online safety and web filtering systems” for education. As well as just blocking content, Lightspeed’s Web Filter also incorporates hierarchical filtering “to keep students safe, even when they leave the classroom,” along with web activity reporting functionality “from the high level to the detail”. I presume in this instance “the detail” means individual students.

According to their press, Lightspeed Systems create tools to help schools manage and filter their networks as well as empower classroom learning. There  doesn’t seem to be any mention of trivial issues such as privacy, ethics and consent. One of their products, Classroom Orchestrator, is designed to allow teachers to monitor students screens and devices “making it easy to see who’s off-task, who needs extra attention, and who’s excelling”. Orchestrator allows teachers to view all students screens from a dashboard, “ensures safety by seeing who is protected by the webfilter and who isn’t”, and perhaps most worryingly, “record sessions to store a students activity to share or investigate.” This immediately rang all sorts of alarm bells; where is that data being stored, who owns it, who has access to it? Although Lightspeed’s products are primarily designed for use on schools’ own mobile devices, the presenter added that they can also be installed on children’s own mobile devices and can be used to monitor their web activity outwith school hours. Apparently they’ve had, and I quote, “Lots of positive feedback about teachers taking control of and locking apps on students’ mobile devices.” That was the point where my jaw really hit the floor.

I made a point of asking during questions who owned and had access to the data that Lightspeed gathers. The reply was that the data is stored on servers in the UK and clients have the right to access this data under the Freedom of Information act. Seriously? I asked again if clients really had to submit an FOI request to access their own data and the presenter replied that they could just e-mail their sales representative for access. I lost the will to live at that point.

The contrast between the two presentations couldn’t have been more stark, and both demonstrated in quite different ways, why it is so important to engage children and learners in their own education, why we need to listen to them, not eavesdrop on them, and why we need to respect their privacy and consent. And most of all, it brought home to me just how critical trust and openness has to be in our use of technology in education. After all, if we don’t trust and learn from our children, how will they ever learn to trust and respect others?

NB Throughout the presentation, the Lightspeed representative seemed to refer to Classroom Orchestrator as Classroom Monitor. There is another UK based ed tech company called Classroom Monitor that markets an assessment platform for teachers. There is no link between Lightspeed Systems and Classroom Monitor and their products are not related.

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5 thoughts on “Leaders and Monitors: The best and the worst of education technology

  1. If you haven’t already seen highly recommend Cory Doctrow’s OEB2015 keynote which highlights the issues of blackbox surveillance of kids. One suggestion he makes is helping students learn how to make FOI requests, question those deciding to purchase these products to why they are using them, question if they were fully aware of what services they had signed up to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmI4rLXKo4s

    • Thanks Martin. I’ll definitely have a look at that. These systems are very, very scary indeed. It took quite a lot of restraint to write this blog post. I don’t think I’ve ever been so annoyed by a presentation! The kids from Kirklandneuk were a breath of fresh air though.

  2. Hi Lorna,
    I am really glad I read this.

    Monitoring is part of a classroom teachers job. When I was teaching with multiple pupils using computers I’d monitor by walking round the class, chatting & watching screens. I’d want to help, keep pupils safe & mostly on task. I am sure teachers at Kirklandneuk do the same.

    Currently I sometimes work a training lab with Apple Remote Desktop. I don’t use this to watch screens, again walking round chatting is better. It is a handy tool for distributing files, updating boxes etc. I’ve met teachers who use this to help children, pull examples of work onto a projector for sharing with a whole class and the like.

    I think it would be easy to see the monitoring you describe as a way to do this sort of thing without thinking through the bigger picture.

    Councils & schools already filter pupils Internet. Some councils decrypt encrypted traffic. There will be a view (not mine) that monitoring and recording is an extension of this and a good thing.

    We need to be constantly reminded of the negatives as well as the positives of new software & systems, so thanks.

    • Thanks John, that’s really interesting. You’re absolutely right of course, keeping kids focused and on task is an important part of a teachers role and talking to children even more so. I can see that there is a perfectly benign way to use monitoring, filtering and remote desktop systems but I think trust is central to how they are used and there was no mention of it in the sales pitch I heard. What really concerns me is what happens to the data, who owns it, and who it is shared with. One of Lightspeed’s sales reps noted that their products are very popular in a country that is not known for it’s progressive and open regime. That kind of thing really worries me.

  3. Pingback: The classroom panopticon effect - David Sherlock

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