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.


Questioning assumptions about openness

Like many of my colleagues on twitter this week, I spent most of Tuesday following the #MOOCs2 back channel from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s MOOCs: What we have learned, emerging themes and what next event.  Inevitably the issue of degrees of openness arose with many participants questioning and discussing the variable openness of MOOCs and their relationship to OER.   Anyone who follows this blog will know that this is a bit of a hobby horse of mine so I followed the discussion with interest.

Quite coincidentally, half way through the afternoon OERs4OpenShools (@OERs4OS) tweeted


Hoping to find a nice example of an open OER based course I klicked the link and was met with the following


Now I know I could simple have logged in, but I can’t help finding it slightly off-putting when a site that purports to be open immediately confronts me with a log in screen.  In a fit of impatience I tweeted:

To which Javiera Atenas (@jatenas) replied:

As so often happens, I didn’t have the time to dig any deeper so it was left to Pat Lockley to point out that this site appears to be a ning community which most likely has no restrictions on joining.  Still unconvinced I replied:

At that point Pat pointed out that OER-Discuss, the Open Education Resources Jiscmail list of which I am a moderator, also requires users to sign up, which I had to concede is a very fair point.  The whole discussion certainly led me to examine my own assumptions and preconceptions regarding openness and to turn my original question “How open is open?” back on myself.  Is a simple log in screen really a barrier to openness?  Does it discourage people from engaging?  And on a more personal level, have I got unrealistic ideals of what constitutes openness?

 PS. For the record, I’ve now tried registering for OER4OpenSchools and it appears to have a three step registration process.
1. Enter name, e-mail and dob, answer question, fill in captcha.
2. Receive e-mail and click authentication link.
3. Enter full name, country of residence, job description and reasons for wanting to joining the community.
I confess I gave up at step 3. although the site owners are very apologetic about the authorisation and authentication process:

“We have to approve every new member to protect the community from “spammers.” We apologize for any delay this causes. Please tell us why you are joining this network.”