Classroom Technology

Software That Monitors Students May Hurt Some It’s Meant to Help

By Alyson Klein — August 08, 2022 2 min read
Students using computers.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Districts increasingly rely on monitoring software to keep students safe and on-task when they use school-issued digital devices, but the practice may do more harm than good, according to a report out this month by the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit that focuses on technology policy.

Monitoring programs can allow educators to keep an eye on students’ emails, messages, documents, and search queries, in part to scan for mental health problems or violent threats. The software can also pinpoint when students have logged into their device and for how long, and even give teachers a real-time glimpse at what’s on their students’ computer screens. Eighty-nine percent of teachers surveyed by the CDT say their districts use some sort of monitoring software, a 5 percent hike over last year.

But in addition to referring kids who may be troubled to counseling services, the software is often used for discipline purposes, the CDT found. In fact, 78 percent of teachers whose school uses monitoring software say it has helped identify students for disciplinary purposes. Just 54 percent of those teachers say the programs have been used to connect students to a counselor, therapist, or social worker for help.

Districts have also used the software to identify students as part of the LGBTQ community without their consent. Thirteen percent of all students at schools that use student activity monitoring say they or another student they know who is LGBTQ has been outed because of the software.

All of this is having a chilling effect on students’ online behavior, the survey found. About half of students said they agreed with the statement, “I do not share my true thoughts or ideas because I know what I do online may be monitored.” And about 80 percent said they were more careful about their searches because they know their school is keeping tabs on their online activities.

“We’ve found that nearly every school in the country is giving devices to students—and monitoring is hurting them,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, the president and CEO of the CDT, in a statement. “When you combine the resurgence of violence in schools with the mental health crisis among kids, schools are surveilling students’ activities more than ever. But these efforts to make students safer more often result in disciplining students instead.”

What’s more, teachers often play a significant role in figuring out how to handle potential problems surfaced by the software, with 65 percent saying they are responsible for following up on the alerts it generates. Those alerts can flag everything from whether a student is off task, to whether they are at risk of hurting themselves or others. Despite that, just 31 percent of teachers say they have gotten guidance on how to use the monitoring systems securely.

In response to the findings, the CDT and other non-profit organizations sent a letter earlier this month to Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education urging her to “curb [the] harms” to student privacy and mental health as a result of the monitoring software through guidance and, if necessary, enforcement.

The report was informed by a survey of 1,606 6th- to 12th-grade parents and 1,008 6th- to 10th-grade teachers, as well as two surveys of 9th- to 12th-grade students conducted in late spring.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Early Childhood Webinar
How the Science of Reading Elevates Our Early Learners to Success
From the creators of ABCmouse, learn how a solution grounded in the science of reading can prepare our youngest learners for kindergarten.
Content provided by Age of Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
English-Language Learners Webinar
Classroom Strategies for Building EL Students’ Confidence and Success
Fueling success for EL students who are learning new concepts while navigating an unfamiliar language. Join the national discussion of strategies and Q&A.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
Future of Work Live Online Discussion Seat at the Table: Understanding the Critical Link Between Student Mental Health and the Future of Work
In recent months, there’s been a rallying cry against the teaching of social-emotional skills. Discover why students need these skills now more than ever.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology Want Kids to Be More Responsible Online? Start Early
Talking to 4-year-olds about screen time, digital literacy, and cyber safety may seem premature. But waiting puts kids at a disadvantage.
7 min read
Kindergartner Dallas Webb tests herself in a reading lab on software designed to even out gaps in knowledge. Her school, Jere Whitson Elementary, in Cookeville, Tenn., is part of a district experimenting with new ways of using federal funds to teach reading and literacy.
Teaching young children digital citizenship skills can help prepare them to navigate the online world in safer, more meaningful ways now and when they are older.
Shawn Poynter for Education Week
Classroom Technology Letter to the Editor Schools Need a Computer Literacy Curriculum
It is irresponsible to give students computers and not invest in training, writes a teacher in this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
Classroom Technology So Long, Remote Learning: Why Some Districts Are Ending Virtual Options
More than one-third of a sample of 100 school districts are not offering full-time remote learning options this school year.
3 min read
Photograph of a young girl reading, wearing headphones and working at her desk at home with laptop near by.
Some school districts are ending their remote learning programs because they were not nearly as effective as in-person instruction.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Classroom Technology 5 Big Technology Challenges Teachers and Administrators Will Face This School Year
Grappling with cybersecurity and what to do with all those new devices are big ones.
5 min read
Students using computers.