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Brave New World?

October 31, 2013

Two articles in the NYTimes sent chills up my spine this past week: one on public education’s struggle with monitoring children’s internet habits and Nick Kristoff’s column on the eavesdropping debacle in Europe.

Tuesday’s article, “Warily, Schools Watch Students on the Internet” described a quandary schools are facing:

… as students complain, taunt and sometimes cry out for help on social media, educators have more opportunities to monitor students around the clock. And some schools are turning to technology to help them. Several companies offer services to filter and glean what students do on school networks; a few now offer automated tools to comb through off-campus postings for signs of danger. For school officials, this raises new questions about whether they should — or legally can — discipline children for their online outbursts.

Our country’s fear-based desire to protect students from bullying is contributing to this dilemma as is the desire to closely monitor students’ use of time on computers. The legislation regarding bullying opens the doors to schools giving serious consideration to this kind of monitoring as does the notion that schools are responsible for suicide prevention in addition to academics. The article describes how one district, Glenwood Unified School District (GUSD), secured the services of Geo Listening to monitor students’ social media postings in response to a rash of suicides. The company uses algorithms to monitor the posts and got $40,500 from GUSD for its services. It’s president predicted he would have 3000 districts signed up by the end of the year… and he’s not the only one in tis market. CompuGuardian, based in Salt Lake City, is offering it’s services to “…monitor whether students were researching topics like how to build bombs or discussing anorexia.” and their CEO is “…optimistic about market growth.” It is telling that this article appeared in the Business Day Technology section of the newspaper. The market for fear-based products is growing.

In addition to monitoring posts and on-line searches schools are unapologetically monitoring the time students spend on homework when they use district issued laptops or I-Pads. Details on this “academic monitoring” can be found in countless articles in education journals. To a degree this kind of monitoring is as much an invasion of privacy as the monitoring of social media because it conditions students to accept virtual monitoring of their everyday lives.

Kristoff’s column has nothing to do with schools but everything to do with our political and cultural conditioning. In the concluding paragraphs he writes:

Yes, there is still a place for drones, for spying on allies, for the N.S.A. But they need to be subjected to scrutiny, context and brakes, as they were before 9/11.

Commercial aviation would be safer if we were all required to fly stark naked. But we accept trade-offs — such as clothing — and thus some small risk. In the same way, it’s time to pause for a breath in the security realm and start examining the trade-offs, rather than just doing things because we can.

It was the last sentence that prompted me to go back to my queue of pending blog articles and dig out the one on monitoring social media. Are we monitoring students more closely “because we can” or is this monitoring expanding the mission of “state schooling” to a level that is unacceptable and unrealistic? This line of thinking led me to make this comment to Kristoff’s article:

One of the “trade-offs” we have accepted in our efforts to “protect children” is to keep them behind locked doors with surveillance cameras and expecting “the state” in the form of public schools to monitor their every move from the time they leave home until the time they return. Oh.. and to protect them even more we want them to walk past an armed guard to get into their confined quarters. Oh… and if THAT’s not enough we want to monitor the time they are spending each night doing homework. What kind of world are we creating for the future? Are the “trade-offs” worth it? When will we start “…examining the trade-offs” rather than doing things that are politically expedient and based on fear?

Most young adults can’t believe there was a time when you could walk right into an airport and meet your loved one when they got off the plane. What will my grandson think when I tell him about my school days in the 50s? Is his world really less safe than mine was or are monitoring his world more closely because we can?

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