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CDT Original Research Examines Privacy Implications of School-Issued Devices and Student Activity Monitoring Software

During the global pandemic, at a time when remote learning was the only educational option available, K-12 schools across the nation moved quickly to provide devices like laptops and tablets to students to address inequities in technology access. These efforts introduced activity monitoring software into students’ homes, as well as other digital tools aimed in part at facilitating remote classroom management and driving student engagement. These tools, however, can also be used in ways that are unduly intrusive and raise red flags for student equity and privacy protection. Advocates have broad-based concerns about student activity monitoring software, including questions about its efficacy, invasive privacy violations, and potential chilling effect on students’ willingness to express themselves.

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) sought to understand whether students who rely on school-issued devices are subject to more monitoring than their peers who have their own devices. Today, CDT releases two complementary new reports that are the result of our original research on this question. Online and Observed: Student Privacy Implications of School-Issued Devices and Student Activity Monitoring Software is an interview-based study examining local education agencies’ (LEAs) use of and motivations for using monitoring software on school-issued devices. Student Activity Monitoring Software: Research Insights and Recommendations presents survey research assessing teacher, parent, and student experiences and attitudes regarding student activity monitoring software. 

 This research builds on recent CDT guidance on how schools can address privacy gaps in the implementation of remote education technology, and contributes important findings about why schools turn to monitoring software and how it impacts students. We also make policy recommendations for how districts considering these tools can maintain student privacy protections.

Expanded Monitoring In Remote Learning Environments

In Online and Observed: Student Privacy Implications of School-Issued Devices and Student Activity Monitoring Software, we interviewed administrators at five LEAs, encompassing a diverse set of geographies and student bodies. This study sought to understand how student activity monitoring software is used at the K-12 level, and how it impacts students who rely on school-issued devices compared to their peers who use their own personal devices for school purposes. 

Our research indicates that school-issued devices tend to track student activity to a much greater extent than personal devices. This suggests that students in higher-poverty districts are subjected to more pervasive monitoring than students in wealthier districts, who are more likely to have access to personal devices. Privacy and security on personal devices is a luxury that not all students can afford. In addition to the pandemic, misperceptions about requirements of federal laws like the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) also have contributed to expanded monitoring. 

Privacy Implications of Monitoring Software

Given the increased use of student monitoring software brought on by the shift to remote learning, we wanted to understand school community concerns. We found that parents, teachers, and other school community members had expressed some concern about the use of data from monitoring software in disciplinary contexts. These findings were supported by survey results reported in Student Activity Monitoring Software: Research Insights and Recommendations. The survey found that the majority of teachers (57%) and parents (61%) are concerned that online monitoring could harm students if it is used to discipline them or is shared and used out of context. 

Our research also highlights other potential harmful implications of monitoring software. For instance, we found that monitoring tools create a chilling effect on student self-expression — 58% of students who report that their school uses monitoring software agree with the statement, “I do not share my true thoughts or ideas because I know what I do online is being monitored.” We also found that 47% of teachers and 51% of parents are concerned that student online activity monitoring could have unintended consequences like “outing” LGBTQ+ students. 

The report also calls out a number of key findings that highlight the need for strong attention to privacy protection, mitigation of digital inequities, and intentional community engagement. Additionally, it offers five policy recommendations for how to best preserve student privacy when considering use of monitoring tools: 

  1. Provide transparency regarding student activity monitoring. 
  2. Minimize data collected on school-issued devices and through student activity monitoring software.
  3. Mitigate inequitable results arising from school-issued devices and student activity monitoring.
  4. Maintain control of student data when shared with student activity monitoring vendors.
  5. Build capacity within the school system and among communities on how to close the homework gap while protecting students.                

Preserving Student Privacy While Maintaining Online Safety

Despite their popularity, student activity monitoring tools raise critical red flags for student equity and privacy protection. These policy recommendations offer a way forward, allowing districts to preserve student privacy while keeping students safe online and maintaining robust student engagement. For example, providing information in an accessible, understandable format helps empower families in their decisions about education technology and increases trust in the use of data. Districts should inform parents and students about the specific data collected, how that information is used, and the vendors and any other third parties with whom the district shares data. Further, a core facet of responsible data use—minimizing data collection—helps to limit data use outside of its intended context. 

In addition to general data minimization, districts may reduce the inequitable impact of monitoring on students who depend on school-issued devices by specifically limiting the use of data collected through monitoring for disciplinary purposes. They can also minimize the circumstances under which student data is shared with law enforcement. Lastly, as an alternative to student monitoring software, districts can engage community members and teachers to monitor students’ online activities and coach them on digital literacy and online citizenship, which can limit the unnecessary collection of data about students. 

Together, these two reports identify important issues for policymakers and practitioners to consider as they implement strategies to better protect students. 

While educators have an important role in mitigating the harms of student monitoring software, vendors should also take responsibility and increase transparency about their products. And at the federal level, there is a need for policymakers to clarify CIPA’s monitoring requirement, and adopt policies to codify student privacy practices since federal funds are dispersed to provide school-issued devices. Together with responsible software use by districts and schools, these actions can best protect students and close the homework gap.

Read Online and Observed: Student Privacy Implications of School-Issued Devices and Student Activity Monitoring Software

Read Student Activity Monitoring Software, Research Insights and Recommendations.