• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

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Shut Down the Parent Portals: The Dangers of Real-Time Data

Surveilling students isn't in anyone's interest except the people who make the software.

May 1, 2016
 

 

 

Parent “Portals,” as utilized in K12 education, are doing significant harm to student development.[1]

For those not familiar, Parent Portals are learning management systems that provide “real time” information to parents of school-aged children: “grades, attendance, assignments, and more.”

On a daily basis parents can monitor their child’s performance in school and intervene at home. In theory, this seems like a good thing.

But what is the difference between “real time” data and constant surveillance?

In my view, not much.

What if surveillance is not conducive to education?

I’m working this one out. Let’s see where it goes.

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How many of you have seen a child biff pretty hard when the child thinks no one is looking? I’m not talking an oopsie, but an actual knee-scraper, a legit owie. Let’s say the kid is charging after something it wants, a ball, or a dog. Maybe the thing is entirely imaginary. You know those kids.

The moment before the spill was a good one, an exciting one, and then suddenly… ouch.

They feel pain because it hurts. They roll over, inspect the abrasion. They have seen this before. It is red and throbby. It is the kind of thing dad or mom would fuss over if they saw it, a walk inside for some of that gooey ointment, a kiss to make it all better. There would be tears, a relief because the tears bring attention and attention is love.

But this time, there is no one around and it hurts, but it has hurt before and eventually it stopped hurting, sometimes even before dad or mom kissed it better.

Maybe they’re not necessary, not when there is something to be chased after.

Brush the bits of dirt or gravel away, ouch again. A tear, a prelude to more? Still, no mom or dad or anyone.

That thing that seemed so interesting is getting away. Back of hand across cheek, tears wiped away. Better get up and get after it.

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Ask the average college instructor and they will tell you that they are concerned that the current generation of students lacks “resilience,” the ability to rebound from a setback.

My conversations with students reveal some who consider switching majors after a single unfavorable exam grade. Many are deeply anxious about receiving anything other than an A, relatively certain that a GPA less than a 3.8 will consign them to a life of penury. When I ask them why they need A’s, they look at me like I’m asking a fish why it needs water.

One theory is that this generation has been coddled, given trophies for nothing more than participation. That they are entitled.

My belief is different, that students have been defeated by a system that has divorced school from learning, and where the purpose of school is to be good at school and the measurement of how good you are is your grade. Grades are divorced from genuine meaning, and yet are deeply meaningful.

I think students are scared. All the available data on the incidence of student depression and anxiety backs me up.

Upon arriving at college, the current generation of students is the most observed, tested, and measured of all time. We are desperate to know how we’re doing, and because of this we have fetishized numerical data, scores, standardization. The more and the faster (real-time), the better, apparently.

The slightest bobble and interventions are at hand. Nip it in the bud and all that. Testing for ADHD, extra tutoring, parental interference and admonishment.

A parent can monitor their child in real-time without ever having to speak with the teacher.

The proof is in the portal.

Where is this getting us?

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Talk to your students and you will see two threads, the ones whose parents were checking the portal obsessively, and those whose parents barely knew the portal existed.[2] Ask these different categories of student how they feel about school and I think you will see that those who were monitored are “good” students, show up to class prepared, turn their work in on time and the like. They probably get better grades.

I bet you will also find that they are more anxious than their peers, that they are deferential to authority to a fault, and that they desire what many of us at the college level believe to be an unreasonable amount of guidance.

They are the opposite of entitled, but instead desperately eager to please the other.

When we gather data without first practicing judgment, it becomes difficult to discern that which is meaningful and that which is noise.

When I was a kid, if you caught me at the wrong time, you would’ve thought I had a behavior disorder, when the reality was I needed a Snickers because low blood sugar gives me a case of the grumpies.

What’s happening to students when we’re spending so much time observing and reporting on them? Sure, we could caution parents, tell them not to overreact to small events, but is this a reasonable expectation?

Isn’t it more likely that if the surveillance tool is available, we will use it, and overuse it?

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My closest encounter with real-time data has been hospital rooms. When your loved one is hooked up to the equipment, there is a moment-to-moment readout of pulse, respiration, oxygenation.

It is this last one that got to me, when my father was sick, on his way to dying.

The pulse oximeter is that thingy that clamps to the patient’s finger and it measures the oxygen saturation of the blood. If you are walking around and healthy it is 100%. If you are in the hospital and ill it may be less than that. It may move up and down through the 90’s, occasionally dipping into the 80’s, and when your primary activity for several hours has been watching the numbers on the screen, and you see this happening…into the 80’s, and now 70’s, you begin to freak out a bit. You look around frantically for a nurse or doctor, not wanting to be alarmist, but also not wanting to do nothing if something should be done. You know nothing other than the numbers, and 72 is less than 100, a lot less.

Do you know who isn’t constantly responding to real-time data in hospitals? Medical professionals. The monitors are equipped with alarms for sudden occurrences, and everything is recorded for posterity, but you do not see nurses and doctors obsessing over every last bleep and bloop because they have something necessary for working with data, judgment.

And so when the nurse comes in and sees the pulse oximeter number is lower than one would wish, rather than calling down a team of professionals, she checks the patient’s finger and sees that…yep…the little doohickey has slipped a little.

You realize that if you’re going to stay in that room, you need to turn your back to those monitors.[3]

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School has never lacked for feedback. The very act of schooling is a constant feedback loop between teacher and students. We have report cards. We have phone calls home, parent-teacher conferences.

There was a time when these were all better than sufficient. What’s changed?

Kids and parents?

Probably not that much. What if real-time data has us swinging at far too many pitches?

Before long, we’re exhausted, and we have a hard time discerning what matters from what doesn’t. We’ve also outsourced professional judgment to the portal. The teacher dutifully enters the data.

Surely the parents will see and do something if necessary?

But some parents are doing too much. Others are doing nothing at all.

The technology has not brought teacher and parent together, but instead put distance between them.

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Do you remember the moment you realized you were going to biff a grade – something like a D in Algebra II – but the report cards weren’t for another three weeks, and you had to carry this terrible knowledge around?

Before the portal you could postpone the inevitable, perhaps absconding with the report card itself, a very careful and judicious use of black pen on the carbon copy to change that D to a B. This buys time, but each day knowing there is unexploded ordinance in the household brings greater and greater anxiety. Maybe you can get the grade up for the next period so that B is reality, but you know deep down this is unlikely. The equations that look like hieroglyphs today will not suddenly come clear tomorrow.

You are doomed, doomed, doomed.

Eventually, you will be discovered, but when the truth comes out, you are relieved. Relieved of permission to go out on weekends, but also relieved that you are not carrying the burden any longer, relieved that your parents’ anger and disappointment has, in some way, absolved you of this sin.

It is there problem now, not yours.

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Having the opportunity to screw up and pay the (appropriate) price is one of the most important parts of becoming a resilient adult, of developing the kind of self-regulating behaviors that will be a big part of future success and happiness.

Real-time data makes it too easy and too tempting to intervene.

It also outsources responsibility from the student to the parent, which is a very comfortable place for students, who instead need to experience discomfort in order to develop resiliency.

And what happens when students go to college and intervention is largely outside parental power?

Just because collecting and reporting data is possible, doesn’t mean it’s desirable, and data absent judgment is worse than no data at all.

In my experience as both student and teacher, we learn best when we are at our most free, and learning is a form of exploration. Denying students the necessary privacy to screw up makes them cowed and risk-averse.

We need to keep boundaries around our students, but more and more, I don’t think students should even know they’re there until they bump up against them.

Most of the negative events that happen in school are no worse than a skinned knee, and the sooner students learn how to brush themselves off and chase what they want, the better.

 

 

[1] For sure, I’m talking about a particular type of parent and student. The existence of a portal and a parent engaged enough to check it obsessively is in itself a kind of privilege. But I also believe the behaviors and values of the privileged trickle down to everyone else. It’s not an accident that the most prominent school “reform” figures went to elite schools and privilege metrics like scores and grades. It’s also not coincidental that many of those reformers don’t subject their own children to the same treatment.

[2] In some cases, the students purposefully withheld the existence of the portal from their tech-unsavvy parents.

[3] And you know where there’s no monitors? Hospice care, which is about making the time left worth living, rather than the prevention of dying.

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