Laptop Monitoring: It's Not Just In Pennsylvania

One of the major news stories of the past week has focused on the Lower Merion school district in Philadelphia and the furor created when the school admitted it could remotely activate student webcams and observe them remotely. One clip from an episode of Frontline that aired in June 2009, however, proves that Lower Merion's Harriton High School is not the only place where students' rights are potentially being violated.

The Frontline story in question focuses on how the introduction of laptops and other technology has revitalized a school that was in danger of being taken over by the state of New York. The school principal Jason Levy (pictured below) became principal of IS 339 in 2004 and began applying for laptops and technology grants in 2005. In March 2006 only nine percent of the student body met grade-level testing criteria in math; 21 percent passed the equivalent language exam. The school began its technology overhaul and revamp later that year. This past March, 62 percent of the student body met grade-level criteria in math; 40 percent hit the English/language arts criteria.

Clearly the introduction and integration of advanced technology has had a huge impact on student performance at IS 339, but rapid evolution in education methods has outstripped privacy rules and regulations. The troublesome tidbit starts 4:17 into the video when kids describe how they use the notebooks ("mostly chat and games"), assistant principal Dan Ackerman details how he can activate student webcams and monitor activities remotely.
"6th and 7th grade have cameras. This kid looks like they're editing their MySpace page...they don't even realize that we're watching. I always like to mess with them and take a picture...nine times out of ten they duck out of the way, then they shut down and get to work," Ackerman said. "I think kids know what is expected of them but they also want to do all their other things and they feel that as long as they're doing their work there's nothing wrong with them chatting, looking at themselves in the mirror, as long as it gets done in X amount of time that they have."

Ackerman's comments are drawing a great deal of attention in the wake of the Lower Merion case but the two situations are different enough to warrant separate examination. At IS 339, the emphasis is apparently on prodding students to get back school work, not on using the webcam (allegedly) to provide proof of inappropriate behavior. The remote observation we see on camera is also occurring during school hours, when both laptop and student are on school property. Finally, it's not clear if the parents and students of IS 339 are aware that the school-issued laptops can be monitored remotely.

The staff and administrators at IS 339 deserve a great deal of credit for turning the school around as significantly as they have in such a short time, but issues like this drive home the need to create laptop remote viewing policies that allow the school to achieve its own goals (ensuring that systems are used appropriately, keeping students on-task) without fundamentally violating student privacy. These two goals are not necessarily in conflict. It would be a step in the right direction to establish review policies that ensure no group of students is being monitored by a teacher or administrator whose opinion of said student could be impacted by anything the student might reveal to a friend (or even another teacher) during a supposedly private chat.

Forward to 4:17 for the good stuff...

The privacy issues surrounding the use of mobile systems in the classroom will likely take years to sort out, but proper communication and reasonable reaction could keep a great many of these cases out of court.