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USA Schools Are Normalising Intrusive Surveillance

As the authors detail, among the technologies are surveillance cameras. These are often linked to software for facial recognition, access control, behavior analysis, and weapon detection. That is, cameras scan student faces and then algorithms identify them, allow or deny them entry based on that ID, decide if their activities are threatening, and determine if objects they carry may be dangerous or forbidden.

“False hits, such as mistaking a broomstick, three-ring binder, or a Google Chromebook laptop for a gun or other type of weapon, could result in an armed police response to a school,” cautions the report.

That’s not a random assortment of harmless-until-misidentified items; a footnoted 2022 Charlotte Observer piece points out such objects were tagged as weapons by scanners in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “A how-to video posted earlier this year by administrators at Butler High School instructs students to remove certain belongings from their backpacks — and walk through the scanner holding their laptops above their heads — to avoid setting off a false alarm,” it adds.

Huh. What happens if behavior analysis algorithms decide that brandished laptops are threatening?

Also called out is software that monitors social media, students’ communications, and web-surfing habits. Audio monitors that are supposed to detect gunshots—but can be triggered by slammed doors (as at Greenwood High School in Arkansas earlier this year)—also feature in many schools.

Of students aged 14–18 surveyed by the ACLU, 62 percent saw video cameras in their schools (the U.S. Department of Education says cameras are used by 91 percent of public schools), and 49 percent reported monitoring software. Understandably, this affects their behavior. Thirty-two percent say, “I always feel like I’m being watched,” and 26 percent fret over what their “school and the companies they contract with do with the data.”

“Research demonstrates the damaging effect of surveillance on children’s ability to develop in healthy ways,” Fedders added. “Pervasive surveillance can create a climate in which adults are seen as overestimating and overreacting to risk. Children, in turn, cannot develop the ability to evaluate and manage risk themselves in order to function effectively.”

Notably, school surveillance normalizes the idea that constant monitoring is good and necessary for preserving safety.

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School surveillance tech does more harm than good, ACLU report finds

An ACLU report has found that despite claims from companies, surveillance technology in US schools does not improve student safety and constant surveillance can, in fact, cause a number of harms to students including making students less likely to report dangerous behavior.

Schools typically use technologies such as cameras, facial recognition software and communication monitoring and filtering technology, which have been marketed by education technology surveillance companies as intervention tools against school shootings, suicides and bullying. In 2021, US schools and colleges spent $3.1bn on these products and this number is expected to grow by 8% every year, according to the report.

But the ACLU’s report concludes that there is little to no independent research or evidence that supports that this technology works.

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Cheating-Detection Software Provokes ‘School-Surveillance Revolt’

New webcam-based anti-cheating monitoring is so stressful, it’s made some students cry, the Washington Post reports.

“Online proctoring” companies saw in coronavirus shutdowns a chance to capitalize on a major reshaping of education, selling schools a high-tech blend of webcam-watching workers and eye-tracking software designed to catch students cheating on their exams. They’ve taken in millions of dollars, some of it public money, from thousands of colleges in recent months. But they’ve also sparked a nationwide school-surveillance revolt, with students staging protests and adopting creative tactics to push campus administrators to reconsider the deals. Students argue that the testing systems have made them afraid to click too much or rest their eyes for fear they’ll be branded as cheats…

One system, Proctorio, uses gaze-detection, face-detection and computer-monitoring software to flag students for any “abnormal” head movement, mouse movement, eye wandering, computer window resizing, tab opening, scrolling, clicking, typing, and copies and pastes. A student can be flagged for finishing the test too quickly, or too slowly, clicking too much, or not enough. If the camera sees someone else in the background, a student can be flagged for having “multiple faces detected.” If someone else takes the test on the same network — say, in a dorm building — it’s potential “exam collusion.” Room too noisy, Internet too spotty, camera on the fritz? Flag, flag, flag.

As an unusually disrupted fall semester churns toward finals, this student rebellion has erupted into online war, with lawsuits, takedowns and viral brawls further shaking the anxiety-inducing backdrop of college exams. Some students have even tried to take the software down from the inside, digging through the code for details on how it monitors millions of high-stakes exams… Some students said the experience of having strangers and algorithms silently judge their movements was deeply unnerving, and many worried that even being accused of cheating could endanger their chances at good grades, scholarships, internships and post-graduation careers. Several students said they had hoped for freeing, friend-filled college years but were now resigned to hours of monitored video exams in their childhood bedrooms, with no clear end in sight….

[T]he systems’ technical demands have made just taking the tests almost comically complicated. One student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario shared the instructions for his online Introduction to Linear Algebra midterm: five pages, totaling more than 2,000 words, requiring students to use a special activity-monitoring Web browser and keep their face, hands and desk in view of their camera at all times…

Students who break the rules or face technical difficulties can be investigated for academic misconduct. “The instructions,” the student said, “are giving me more anxiety than the test itself.”

Company executives “say a semester without proctors would turn online testing into a lawless wasteland” according to the article. But one long-time teacher counters that “the most clear value conveyed to students is ‘We don’t trust you.'”

Yet the education tech nonprofit Educause reported that 54% of higher education institutions they’d surveyed “are currently using online or remote proctoring services.

“And another 23% are planning or considering using them.”

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Fearing Coronavirus, a Michigan College is Tracking Its Students With a Flawed App

Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, said in June it would allow its nearly 1,500 students to return to campus for the new academic year starting in August. Lectures would be limited in size and the semester would finish by Thanksgiving rather than December. The school said it would test both staff and students upon their arrival to campus and throughout the academic year. But less than two weeks before students began arriving on campus, the school announced it would require them to download and install a contact-tracing app called Aura, which it says will help it tackle any coronavirus outbreak on campus.

There’s a catch. The app is designed to track students’ real-time locations around the clock, and there is no way to opt out. The Aura app lets the school know when a student tests positive for COVID-19. It also comes with a contact-tracing feature that alerts students when they have come into close proximity with a person who tested positive for the virus. But the feature requires constant access to the student’s real-time location, which the college says is necessary to track the spread of any exposure. The school’s mandatory use of the app sparked privacy concerns and prompted parents to launch a petition to make using the app optional.

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Installing Air Filters in Classrooms Has Surprisingly Large Educational Benefits

An emergency situation that turned out to be mostly a false alarm led a lot of schools in Los Angeles to install air filters, and something strange happened: Test scores went up. By a lot. And the gains were sustained in the subsequent year rather than fading away.

That’s what NYU’s Michael Gilraine finds in a new working paper titled “Air Filters, Pollution, and Student Achievement” that looks at the surprising consequences of the Aliso Canyon gas leak in 2015. The impact of the air filters is strikingly large given what a simple change we’re talking about. The school district didn’t reengineer the school buildings or make dramatic education reforms; they just installed $700 commercially available filters that you could plug into any room in the country. But it’s consistent with a growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution, which finds that everyone from chess players to baseball umpires to workers in a pear-packing factory suffer deteriorations in performance when the air is more polluted.

If Gilraine’s result holds up to further scrutiny, he will have identified what’s probably the single most cost-effective education policy intervention — one that should have particularly large benefits for low-income children. And while it’s too hasty to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of one study, it would be incredibly cheap to have a few cities experiment with installing air filters in some of their schools to get more data and draw clearer conclusions about exactly how much of a difference this makes.

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Schools Are Locking Students’ Phones Away to Help With Concentration

After one teacher at San Lorenzo High School brought pouches, created by the tech start-up Yondr, into her classroom to lock away students’ phones, the entire school began using them from the beginning of the school day at 8 a.m. until the end of the day at 3:10 p.m. According to a 2018 study from the Pew Research Center, more than half of teens said they felt loneliness, anxiety, or upset in the absence of a cellphone. The study also found that girls were more likely to feel these sentiments than boys.

“If something feels weird about modern life to young kids who are dealing with a lot of angst and anxiety in general, maybe it has something to do with relating to the world primarily through a screen eight hours a day,” Yondr’s founder Graham Dugoni told CNBC. Students said they initially felt awkward and annoyed having their phones taken away during the school day, but added that they started to see more teens interacting with each other. One student added that not having a phone in class helped with concentration.

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Chinese schools enforce ‘smart uniforms’ with GPS tracking system to monitor students

Chinese schools have begun enforcing “smart uniforms” embedded with computer chips to monitor student movements and prevent them from skipping classes.

Eleven schools in the south-west province of Guizhou have introduced the uniforms, which were developed by local tech firm Guizhou Guanyu Technology.

As students enter the school, the time and date is recorded along with a short video that parents can access via a mobile app.

Facial recognition further ensures that each uniform is worn by its rightful owner to prevent students from cheating the system.

Skipping classes triggers an alarm to inform teachers and parents of the truancy, while an automatic voice alarm activates if a student walks out of school without permission.

A GPS system tracks student movements even beyond the school grounds.

The two chips — inserted into each uniform’s shoulders — can withstand up to 500 washes and 150 degrees Celsius, the company told state media Global Times.

Alarms will also sound if a student falls asleep in class, while parents can monitor purchases their child makes at the school and set spending limits via a mobile app, according to the company’s official website.

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Google Is Teaching Children How to Act Online. Is It the Best Role Model?

Google is on a mission to teach children how to be safe online. That is the message behind “Be Internet Awesome,” a so-called digital-citizenship education program that the technology giant developed for schools.

The lessons include a cartoon game branded with Google’s logo and blue, red, yellow and green color palette. The game is meant to help students from third grade through sixth guard against schemers, hackers and other bad actors.

But critics say the company’s recent woes — including revelations that it was developing a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market and had tracked the whereabouts of users who had explicitly turned off their location history — should disqualify Google from promoting itself in schools as a model of proper digital conduct.

Among other things, these critics argue, the company’s lessons give children the mistaken impression that the main threat they face online is from malicious hackers and bullies, glossing over the privacy concerns that arise when tech giants like Google itself collect users’ personal information and track their actions online.

American corporate giants are no strangers to the country’s schools.

In the 1970s, General Motors circulated a free booklet in public schools that featured cartoon characters like Harry Hydrocarbon, who played down concerns about the health risks of industrial pollution and suggested that air pollution would soon not be a problem, according to a 1979 report, “Hucksters in the Classroom: A Review of Industry Propaganda in Schools.”

In the 1990s, Procter & Gamble promoted its own curriculum, “Decision: Earth,” in schools. Among other things, it instructed children that synthetic diapers were no more harmful for the environment than cloth diapers.

Around the same time, Campbell Soup sponsored a classroom kit called the “Prego Thickness Experiment.” According to a 1997 article in The New York Times, “Corporate Classrooms and Commercialism,” the kit was supposed to teach children the scientific method — by having them “prove” that Prego pasta sauce was thicker than rival Ragu.

Critics see a similar self-serving agenda with “Be Internet Awesome,” which presents malicious third parties as the primary online threat to children, while failing to teach them how to navigate corporate data-mining practices.

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High School in China Installs Facial Recognition Cameras to Monitor Students’ Attentiveness

A high school in Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province located on the eastern coast of China, has employed facial recognition technology to monitor students’ attentiveness in class.

At Hangzhou Number 11 High School, three cameras at the front of the classroom scan students’ faces every 30 seconds, analyzing their facial expressions to detect their mood, according to a May 16 report in the state-run newspaper The Paper.

The different moods—surprised, sad, antipathy, angry, happy, afraid, neutral—are recorded and averaged during each class.

A display screen, only visible to the teacher, shows the data in real-time. A certain value is determined as a student not paying enough attention.

A video shot by Zhejiang Daily Press revealed that the system—coined the “smart classroom behavior management system” by the school—also analyzes students’ actions, categorized into: reading, listening, writing, standing up, raising hands, and leaning on the desk.

An electronic screen also displays a list of student names deemed “not paying attention.”

The school began using the technology at the end of March, vice principal Zhang Guanchao told The Paper. Zhang added that students felt like they were being monitored when the system was first put in place, but have since gotten used to it.

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New York high school will use CCTV and facial recognition to enforce discipline

Next year, high schools in Lockport New York will use the “Aegis” CCTV and facial recognition system to track and record the interactions of students suspected of code of conduct violations, keeping a ledger of who speaks to whom, where, and for how long.

The record will be used to assemble evidence against students and identify possible accomplices to ascribe guilt to.

Lockport Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley justified the decision by noting, “We always have to be on our guard. We can’t let our guard down.”

Lockport will be the first school district in the world to subject its students to this kind of surveillance. The program will cost $1.4m in state money. The technology supplier is SN Technologies of Ganonoque, Ont., one of the companies in the vicinity of Kingston, Ontario, home to the majority of the province’s detention centers.

The Lockport district says that the system will make students safer by alerting officials if someone on a sex-offender registry or terrorist watchlist enters the property. None of America’s school shootings or high-profile serial sex abuse scandals were carried out by wanted terrorists or people on the sex-offender registry.

Deployed law-enforcement facial recognition systems have failure rates of 98%. The vendor responsible for Aegis would not disclose how they improved on the state of the art, but insisted that their product worked “99.97% of the time.” The spokesperson would not disclose any of the workings of the system, seemingly believing that doing so was antithetical to security.

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Children struggle to hold pencils due to too much tech, doctors say

Children are increasingly finding it hard to hold pens and pencils because of an excessive use of technology, senior paediatric doctors have warned. An overuse of touchscreen phones and tablets is preventing children’s finger muscles from developing sufficiently to enable them to hold a pencil correctly, they say.

“Children are not coming into school with the hand strength and dexterity they had 10 years ago,” said Sally Payne, the head paediatric occupational therapist at the Heart of England foundation NHS Trust. “Children coming into school are being given a pencil but are increasingly not be able to hold it because they don’t have the fundamental movement skills.

“To be able to grip a pencil and move it, you need strong control of the fine muscles in your fingers. Children need lots of opportunity to develop those skills.”

Payne said the nature of play had changed. “It’s easier to give a child an iPad than encouraging them to do muscle-building play such as building blocks, cutting and sticking, or pulling toys and ropes. Because of this, they’re not developing the underlying foundation skills they need to grip and hold a pencil.”

Although the early years curriculum has handwriting targets for every year, different primary schools focus on handwriting in different ways – with some using tablets alongside pencils, Prunty said. This becomes a problem when same the children also spend large periods of time on tablets outside school.

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