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I am trying to understand how exactly we came to believe that surveilling students would somehow be good for them.

And yet, here we are. A recent article by Benjamin Herold at Education Week“Schools Are Deploying Massive Digital Surveillance Systems. The Results Are Alarming,” backs up its title. As I read, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. By the end, I was in full-on despair over what this generation of young people is being subjected to when it comes to digital surveillance.

Herold explores social media monitoring services which use algorithmic tools to comb through public feeds, trying to sniff out potential threats. Safety and violence prevention is the goal, but as Herold outlines, the vast majority of the items flagged are either false positives or innocuous violations of policy such as profanity, tremendous “time suck” that is nonetheless justified to prevent the sort of attacks we have become far too familiar with.

Students meanwhile have become habituated to the notion that they are being spied upon and the best way to draw attention to a problem is to spill it into a digital space that is being algorithmically monitored. 

As a teacher of writing, I found one example particularly chilling. Herold relates it from Jessica Mays, an instructional technology specialist for Texas’ Temple Independent School District which uses one of the surveillance products Herold covers.

“One student ‘opened a Google Doc, wrote down concerns about a boy in class acting strange, then typed every bad word they could think of,’ Mays said. At the end of the note, the student apologized for the foul language, but wrote that they wanted to make sure the message tripped alarms.”

In Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities I included a chapter called “The Problem of Surveillance” because I’d observed firsthand how “innovations” such as the learning management system, parent portals, and behavioral apps such as ClassDojo had eroded students’ senses of autonomy and agency when it comes to their writing. Diving into the research on the effects of this kind of surveillance confirmed my concerns.

The near real-time monitoring of student work and a system which requires them to defer judgment as to the quality of that work to someone or something else (including an algorithmic grader), is a significant hindrance to developing the habits of mind and skills that writers must possess. Writing involves making choices and good writers take responsibility for the choices they make. Deferring that judgment to another from the get-go is not a good recipe for improving as a writer because it makes for passive and disengaged writers.

There’s no good reason to use any of these technologies. Their primary effect is to increase the anxiety students attach to school, and yet they’re ubiquitous.

The example of the social monitoring software is far beyond anything I discussed in the book which was published all of six months ago. 

Writing is and must be a struggle and writers benefit from not letting others see the results of that struggle until they’re ready to share. An important part of a writer’s development is recognizing that balance point between when they’ve exhausted their own ability on a particular piece and when they may benefit from outside perspective. This absolutely must be done in private. The thought that someone may be digitally peeking over my shoulder even as I write something as relative low-stakes as a blog post would be paralyzing.

Constant surveillance quite literally harms our brains, and yet it is becoming normalized for students to have their work monitored by algorithms.

Worse, technology that claims to monitor students’ moment-to-moment emotional states is rapidly developing and is already being used in China

I’m anticipating technology students will wear at nights to monitor their dreams so they can be reported to some unseen authority to show up any day now.

I sometimes think I’m losing my mind that these things aren’t viewed as self-evidently terrible, but following the publication of Why They Can’t Write, I’ve been frequently exposed to a category of educator who seem to have a bottomless appetite for finding ways to control the actions of students through various tools of monitoring and coercion. The idea that we can spy our way to better learning is self-evidently wrong. 

None of this technology can be plausibly linked to student learning or emotional development. In fact, its use is likely to be damaging in both realms. This is blindingly obvious. Consider that young girl in Texas who thought the best way to alert an adult to a problem was to type it into a Google doc. Is this something we’d like to see normalized.

None of this is inevitable. We could resist these trends. Districts, schools, teachers, parents could choose differently. 

Students too, but we’re not letting them choose, are we?

Maybe that’s the point.


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