surveillance cameras mounted on a wall

Surveillance Software: the focus of EdTech

Before COVID-19, Surveillance Software was the focus of EdTech. The question is will it remain that way or have we learned a few things? This post from sometime in 2017 is still relevant.

There’s a growing sense that we’ve reached a breaking point with technologies in the classroom. France is banning all mobile devices from middle and high school next fall. Privacy concerns continue to mount around Google Classroom and other school wide “solutions” that attempt to manage the daily interactions between teachers and students. And now, as AI and VR and AR begin to attach their tentacles to education, concerns about how to marry tech and teachers are reaching new heights.

Good times.

Yet, as someone who celebrated his 17-year blogging anniversary this week, I’m still in the camp that says humans and technologies can work together in powerful ways in classroom learning contexts.

The problem, however, is that most of what ed tech is selling us isn’t really about learning; it’s about teaching. I was reminded of that once again this week when I walked up to the booth of a big name vendor at a small regional conference and asked the rep what seems to be the toughest product-related question you can ask these days: “So, since you’ve plastered the word ‘learning’ all over your booth, I’m curious, how do you define that word?” (I tend to do that a lot just for fun.) The response was typical: a few stammering sounds followed by some mumblings about “deep understanding” and “applying knowledge” and other such figuring-it-out-on-the-spot phrases. I doubt that rep had ever been asked that question before. I doubt that company ever really talks about what learning really is.

More often than not, ed tech is something done to the student rather than done in service of the student. And there’s no better example of this than a new tool called “Emote” that preys on our current fears around the socio-emotional state of our students and sets a whole new bar for “helicopter educating” (which, I’m sorry to say, is not the first time that phrase has been uttered.) John Warner in Inside Higher Ed does a great job of teasing out the insidiousness of Emote, an app which makes it easier for the adults to record any time a particular student looks depressed or sad or anxious. As Warner notes:

When a child arrives in school, if they are observed to be angry or upset by a staff member, this is logged into the app. Later, a teacher may see additional evidence, creating another alert. The goal, according to Emote CEO Juilan Golder, is to prevent “escalation.” Student behavior can also be tracked longitudinally. Maybe a student is grumpy or sleepy every Monday, suggesting something is amiss at home. The app will know.

No one will be shocked, either, to hear that the CEO says “There’s more interest than we can handle at this point.”

Warner calls this a part of the “Problem with Surveillance” which “discusses the encroachment of real-time data collection and tools of surveillance – such as ‘parent portals’ or apps like ClassDojo – into student spaces. These are part and parcel of the ‘problem of atmosphere’ as students are tracked and monitored throughout the entire school day. These technologies are already doing damage.” And he adds, “There is simply no evidence that real-time data collection or instant feedback is conducive to learning.” There ya go.

I’ll save you the discussion of FaceMetrics, which will no doubt leave you shaking your head in despair. And if you’re really into self-abuse, scan down this Twitter thread from Benjamin Herrold, a writer from EdWeek who has been diving into this explosion of tracking and monitoring apps. (Note: There are so many compelling links in that thread that I probably should just thank you for stopping by at this point and wish you well on your journey onward.) I know I should just put the tl;dr version of all of this at the top of this post, but if you’ve made it this far, here it is: Purveyors of ed tech are jumping whole hog on the socio-emotional learning bandwagon, and we in education seem more than happy to focus on clicking and collecting our way to cataloguing  the symptoms rather than searching for the cause.

Thing is, we know the cause. As Warner writes:

There is mounting evidence that school is demonstrably bad for students’ mental health. The incidence of anxiety and depression are increasing. Each year, more students report being “actively disengaged” from schools.

And this post in Mindshift this week certainly makes that case, adding that parents pushing for “success” in the traditional school sense aren’t helping either.

I’m not saying school is 100% to blame for the mental health issues so many of our kids are experiencing these days. But if you listened to my podcast interview with David Gleason from a couple of months ago, you know that we’re not helping matters much. We’re putting tons of pressure on kids to stay on an increasingly narrow path to “success” because if they don’t, our own self worth as institutions are put at risk.

Read that again. In many ways, we’re choosing ourselves over our kids.

At that same conference I referenced earlier, I listened in on a session that was about improving the mental health of students. It was standing room only, overflow crowds in the hallways craning their necks to hear. The very well-meaning and concerned superintendent talked extensively about how to bring on board more counselors and therapists, how to increase the interventions, and how to monitor students’ mental health more closely. I don’t want to in any way suggest that he didn’t care deeply for his kids. He did. We all do.

But how many therapists or prescriptions or apps could we get away without if we attacked the mental health issues our kids are experiencing through a different lens, one that starts with the premise that we’re the ones that are broken, not the kids? What if we rewrote the script and put mental health above “achievement” or “success” as measured by grade point averages, the number of AP classes we offer, college acceptances, and other “narrow path” measures?

And if you really want to get crazy, why don’t we create an app for students so they can track every time our “narrow path” narrative makes them anxious or stressed, or every time we deny them the agency to pursue learning that matters to them, or hint at their value as humans by the test scores or GPAs they get, or whenever we deny them fundamental democratic rights, or refuse to act in ways that suggest that we are the problem and not them? We could call it “Ed-mote” or some other silly Silicon Valley play on words, and the software would send DMs to superintendents and principals when an intervention is required, like an immediate two-hour play period for everyone in the school. (We could also, by the way, encourage them to track the many positives about their school experience as well.)

Who wants to build that out?

So, yeah, the current crop of ed tech “solutions” is driving me a bit mad because they’re not solutions at all. They’re masking the problem. Which unfortunately seems to be what we want. Because treating the real problem is “more than we can handle at this point.”

1 thought on “Surveillance Software: the focus of EdTech”

  1. Zoe

    It would be helpful for all of us to monitor and track our mental fluctuations, anxieties, depressed states, & disappointments. as well as our states of well being and then to adjust accordingly according to our desired outcomes. It would also be helpful if we clarified desired outcomes so that the tools we use to get there get us there. Treating the real problem is not more than we can handle but it may be more than we want to handle because of what confronting reality would mean in terms of disruptions to established protocols and institutions. Being herded into narrower and narrower paths of supposed success does not necessarily foster mental health and well-being so are we at crossed purposes? We need to see the absurdity of what we are doing before we can change it.

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