Schools, the Internet, and Privacy

In a recent listserv conversation, a participant asked about the steps schools are taking to monitor student computer use. One question dealt with the frequency with which browser histories on student machines were parsed, not as part of any examination into any suspected incidents, but as part of routine supervision and oversight of students.

I've seen more threads like this than I can count. Much of the impetus behind the more intrusive forms of supervision comes from a good motive: the desire to keep kids safe. High profile cases power calls for more supervision, as do "consultants" who conduct seminars tailored for the fears of parents and administrators (as an aside, if I remember the research correctly, scare tactics have been shown to have limited effectiveness for a short time period with students at or around middle school age. Scare tactics don't do much for older students. If any of my three readers knows better info on this, please share it in the comments).

But -- as people who work in and with schools, as people who help kids develop the skills to make rational, meaningful decisions about the world in which they live -- when do we have a responsibility to push back against well-intentioned but misguided efforts that conflate security with supervision?

Within the last two weeks, there have been news stories about the FBI wanting access to geolocation data obtained from cell phones, and the FBI wanting to require ISP's to retain web browsing records for two years. As we have seen before, even access to anonymized search records show an incredible amount of information about an individual. In the recent past, there was some outcry against the government requesting borrowing records from public libraries, and the entire question of warrantless wiretapping raised some hackles.

But the outcry against intrusions on privacy takes place against a backdrop where it's normal to share a steady stream of details about your life. My concern is that, if we make our schools into places where "normal" means having your browsing history tracked daily, people will take that level of supervision for granted. For a child born in 2002, a government that uses warrantless wiretapping is part of the fabric of their lives.

As teachers, as parents, as people who run schools, as people who care about kids: how are we empowering kids to develop their distinct interests, to take informed risks, to explore freely, and to know that it's okay to have hopes, fears, and dreams that are private, and intrinsically theirs until they choose to share?

I was at Educon 2.2 a little while back, and at that meetup we spent a lot of time talking about what school can and should be. I have been working on a follow-up post about the session, but I sense that as I try to make some sense about what learning can be within a context where there is a growing tension between constructive guidance and overbearing observation, part of what we all need to learn is how to deconstruct the myth that being observed and tracked makes us safer.


You are such a good writer that I may be forced to read your blog more often than I do. I have always said that there is huge importance in teachable moments. These teachable moments may be embarrassing for the teacher and the student, but are necessary. With too many things filtered these teachable moments are non-existent.

I wish I had more time to write more. All I will say is nothing can ever replace the eyes of a good teacher when it comes to the use of the computer. Impromptu teaching can often be the best kind.


Hello, Rick,

Thanks for the comment, and the kind words. Good teachers are an essential part of the picture, and something that is often overlooked. Unfortunately, much of the talk about teaching quality feels like a red herring, as many measures seek to impose what some people call "accountability" by measuring teacher performance/quality by looking at decontextualized student testing data. The real conversation is more more nuanced, and nuances don't translate well into slogans or sound bites.

As you say, teachable moments can't be planned, and they often arise from the rubble of the lesson you thought you were going to teach :) But a good teacher can spot opportunities from unlikely places. And I'm the first to admit that, aside from portfolio-based assessment, I have no idea how to measure and track that type of skill and insight.


I thought this was a very interesting post. The Internet in schools does present problems that have been at war since it satrted. The best path, I think, is to increase the moral standing of the student population. If student learn intrinsic values of right and wrong, then it would solve many issues in schools beyond just technology. A great post.

(, for the discussion to improve the educational system.)

Everything at my school seems to be getting blocked by my county. I used the keyword "education" earlier today and it came up blocked because of bad reputation.... That's a scary thought.

I also heard briefly on the radio Monday morning of a family suing a school board for invasion of privacy. Their son got in trouble because the county activated his webcam (which was on the school laptop issued to the student) and he was doing something illegal or had something illegal in the view of the camera. I had to go into the classroom so I did not get to hear the whole story.

Bill, I am a student who has started a technology class and part of our assignments is to learn the aspects and benefits of blogging. I have read several blogs and I want to keep following yours. I look forward to speaking with you.

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