There’s a new online brouhaha over alleged laptop-spying by a teacher, following the recent horrid remote-spying case in Pennsylvania. But it’s really a fuss over nothing–just normal teaching methods aided by 21st Century tech.
The debate rages on over the earlier case in the Lower Merion School District, with deflecting defensive maneuvers by the school itself, and news that the FBI is now investigating. It’s all going on amid a public and very heated argument about the rights to privacy and limitations of the authority of educators. However this fiasco turns out, it seems teachers may have been able to access school laptop’s webcams and monitor what students were doing outside of school time. Which is shameful and has disturbing implications for the right to privacy.
And this is precisely why this new school PC privacy matter has caused such a stir. It’s been highlighted by Cory Doctorow over at BoingBoing, picked up from a PBS Frontline documentary. The footage is available online, and shown below. Doctorow’s indignation is caused by the content from about four and a half minutes into the clip–a teacher is talking about remotely monitoring schoolkid’s PCs. “They don’t realize we are watching” is the supposedly inflammatory phrase, followed by “I always like to mess with them and take a picture.” Doctorow’s piece notes the seemingly shocking nature of this footage, and laments any attempt by the interviewer in the clip to question the teacher about privacy.
But this is all a tempest in a teacup. The classroom is stuffed with networked Apple laptops, each equipped with a built-in webcam and Apple’s special Apple Remote Desktop software. ARD is specifically designed for instances like this, where a class of students (or a room full of cubicle-bound office workers) needs some supervision/help/diagnostic advice from a teacher or systems administrator. It lets a remote authority figure take over some of the functions of the computer in order to give teaching advice or problem-solving. The assistant principal in question is using ARD to monitor his student’s desktops, and is, admittedly taking part in what some might seem a little too playful an interaction via the MacBook’s photo tools (which the kids were actually using as a digital mirror.) But he’s in school, in school hours, monitoring the proper teaching of lessons, as the authority figure.
It’s an exact parallel to the kind of computing lessons I had when I was a kid–with rows of machines, a student body which was more tech-savvy than the teacher, and a lesson to be taught. In this case my teacher had to stroll up and down the lines of green-VDUs, making sure we were tackling the programming task in the right way–there wasn’t any opportunity for us to mess around, as the idea of Facebook, IM, or the Net was a sci-fi fantasy. But that’s not the case now, and both the teaching tools and the opportunity for kids to mess around and not do what they’re told to do has evolved amazingly. The video itself notes that access to MySpace, YouTube, and so on is blocked but the kids, in this seemingly difficult school, “figure out ways to access the sites anyway.” How is any teacher supposed to retain focus and authority if the students are messing around on the ‘Net?