Technological Monitoring of Student Work in a Classroom

I was [in] a classroom yesterday and all of the kids had Chrome Books. They opened them midway through the class to read a few excerpts the teacher had selected. After the class, the teacher told me that he has a monitor at his desk that allows him to see what each of the kids is looking at on their computer. I don’t spend a lot of time in classrooms – I was in this one for something unrelated – but I thought this monitoring system was interesting. I’ve since found out that it is fairly common in some school districts. I wondered if you’ve encountered this and, if so, what your thoughts are about teachers having this ability to peer in on their students? It seems useful in the sense that you want to be sure students are following along. But it also feels like one more thing a teacher has to worry about. Another teacher told me he doesn’t use the system because he feels like it’s an invasion of privacy.

I received this note from a reporter working for a national newspaper. The reporter wanted to ask me what I thought about this all-too-common issue in classrooms where each student has a device–or what used to be called 1:1 computers. The reporter raises the issue directly as a clash between two values teachers highly prize: insuring students are doing what teachers directed them to do with their devices and respecting the privacy of individual students.

I answered the reporter’s email with a hastily constructed paragraph:

Yes, what you describe is common in districts where school provides devices to each student. The rationale is for the teacher to be aware of the level of student understanding of the lesson (often students send in their homework and assignments to Dropbox or a similar storage software so teachers can identify if students are on right track or not). Teachers having this software are able to give individual attention when needed. Such monitoring does not occur in those schools where devices are available to each student when they bring their own device to school—called BYOD. Does it invade privacy? To some it appears so but schools are tax supported institutions charged to achieve educational goals. Prior to the ubiquity of these devices, first-rate teachers would walk around the room seeing if students were on task and working on assigned activity. Was this invasion of privacy. Hardly. 

Reflecting later in the day on the reporter’s email and my response, I decided to elaborate my hasty answer in this post.




Two imperatives of tax-supported schools create the tension between the above values. First, public schools compel students between certain ages to attend school. In effect, these students are a captive audience.

Second, teachers have legal and moral responsibilities for student health, safety, and learning.

Because these captive students become inhabitants of an organization called the age-graded school, they are separated into groups of 20 to 35 and put into classrooms of about 900 to 1000 square feet depending on age. Teachers have to manage these 6 year-olds to 17 year-olds groups before any real learning occur. And let’s be clear on what I mean by “manage.”

I mean that the teacher maintains order in the classroom. By order, I mean that students adhere to behavioral rules, respect the teacher and she in turn respects them.When situations arise (e.g., student refusal to do work or follow behavioral rules, clowning around, interruptions, too much non-learning talk) the teacher intervenes, takes charge and deals clearly and firmly with students. A classroom climate where students’ accept teacher’s authority, obeys directions, and do what the teacher asks while the teacher respects students, refrains from publically embarrassing them, and encourages learning is what I mean by classroom management.

These two imperatives of tax-supported public education in the U.S.seldom get openly discussed but they are the bedrock upon which lesson plans, classroom instruction, and student learning are built.

Thus, the topography of a classroom started out over a century ago with 50-plus students sitting at desks arranged in rows facing a teacher and slateboard. Teachers constantly surveil students to maintain order for learning to occur. They scan the classroom constantly to see if students are on the assigned task.



united-states-1950s-teacher-watching-children-in-class-close-up-of-girl-writing-teacher-walking-around-and-making-comments-to-children-in-classroom_b8e6akuqg_thumbnail-full01.pngThen and now getting a group of 12 year-olds to listen to directions, engage in activities, and focus their attention on the tasks before them requires a teacher to be skilled in crowd management, directing students’ attention to what has to be learned, scanning the room, and creating a moral order anchored in trust for the 36 weeks that these young people and one adult will be together.

Now here is where the above reporter’s comment on using software to monitor student screens enters the discussion about students being on-task and possible abridging of students’ privacy.*

Given the two imperatives I laid out above and the history of public school teaching in age-graded classrooms, maintaining order and constant surveillance of students has been, historically, what teachers have to do in order for students to learn. Before there were computer devices and monitoring software, teachers walked up and down aisles of desks and around the perimeter of the classroom inspecting what students were doing.



It was the job of the teacher to know that students were working on what the teacher asked them to do.

In my judgment, when a teacher looks at student screens while a lesson is underway, there is no invasion of student privacy. It is simply what teachers do as part of their role in guiding student learning.

Had I been less hasty in my response to the reporter’s question, this is what I would have said.


*The privacy argument is further compromised because under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), schools receiving federal funding are required to have an internet-safety policy and institute safeguards so that students cannot access inappropriate websites. In short, schools already intervene to protect children not their data.






Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, technology use

10 responses to “Technological Monitoring of Student Work in a Classroom

  1. I think the emphasis on taxpayer-funded is important. Contrary to what scoffers say, we teachers try hard to keep kids engaged. We don’t all have the same skill level, and to the extent these tools help, that’s great. I don’t even get the idea of invasion of privacy issue. As you observe, if it’s an invasion of privacy to monitor student work through technology, then we’re invading their privacy by walking around and checking their progress. Seems kind of crazy.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    “all of the kids had Chrome Books. They opened them midway through the class to read a few excerpts the teacher had selected. After the class, the teacher told me that he has a monitor at his desk that allows him to see what each of the kids is looking at on their computer.”

    This strikes me as equivilent to checking whether students are looking at the teacher assigned pages in a textbook (or a comic book inside an open textbook).

    There are much more insidious software programs with facial recognition and algorithmic readings of the attention and affective states of students. Some of these programs come with devices (headbands, wristbands) that also allow “personalized” prompts intended to keep students on task and focussed.

  3. I have used computer monitoring software like that. I quit using it. I found myself at my desk monitoring computers instead of wandering the room helping students. It is easy for teachers to get wrapped up in the technology of teaching instead of teaching. Some of this difficulty comes from the fact teaches are sort of in a classroom transition time. Still using old school “sage on the stage” at the front of the room and the students hiding behind laptop lids. I have one teacher who has solved this problem by teaching from the back of the room. He has a touch pad connected to a projector. He can teach and see what the students are doing on their laptops. Tech can be a great teaching aid if used correctly, or a real pain in the rear if not.

  4. Pingback: Larry Cuban: Does Technological Monitoring Invade Student Privacy? | Diane Ravitch's blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s