The ability of teachers and parents to control and monitor what students are doing on their school district-issued computers is about to take a giant leap into the world of surveillance and control in Flagler County schools, down to flagging terms or behavior that could signal self-harm or bullying, monitor email or other online communications, locking up browsers on a site of a teacher’s choosing, preventing computer usage outside certain hours, and giving parents immediate access to children’s detailed usage reports until now available only by request through the district’s bureaucracy.
All high school and middle school students in Flagler schools are provided with a district-issued computer that they may take home during the school year. That’s had its benefits and drawbacks. The district sees the new approach as a means of giving teachers and parents more sense of control over devices that savvy students are able to turn to their personal uses despite various controls that, until now, could not effectively prevent them from circumventing them. The new approach is also a reflection of technology’s evolution as a tool equally powerful to broaden a student’s capabilities, academic or otherwise, as to control them, depending on the motive in play.
With one system, called Mosyle, already in teachers’ hands (and pronounced phonetically just like Mosul, the Iraqi city so often in the news recently), teachers will be able to know at all times through their own computer what sites the students in their classrooms are on, ensure that they do not stray from given sites or apps they’re working on or with during class time—disabling a student’s ability to surf elsewhere—and keep track of what their students did during class time even if they were not locked in. The same controls will be available to parents at home, or when the computer is off campus.
With another system, called Securly, not yet rolled out—but likely to be so by January, and sooner for some 200 to 300 parents—both the district and parents will be able to monitor all usage on the district-issued computer almost in real time or within hours of use, audit email and other communications and, for parents, control what applications are used off campus, when, and to what extent, down to scheduling the device’s usability between certain hours. For example, parents will be able to program the device to shut down at a certain time and be operable only at a time they set. They’ll also be able to subscribe to regular email reports of their child’s web usage, down to a list of sits visited.
“High school students are going to go ballistic,” School Board member Colleen Conklin said.
Both applications are readily available on the market—Mosyle to schools, Securly to individuals, companies or schools—and presented as a convenient way to focus learning, securely. Neither will substantially increase the cost to the district, in comparison with the less subtle or malleable filtering and monitoring system in place now. Mosyl will cost $60,000 a year, or $20,000 less than its comparable and current system now in place. Securly will cost $28,000 to $30,000 a year, once it’s fully rolled out, though for now it’s free as the district tries it out.
“High school students are going to go ballistic.”
More controversially, as that delves into going beyond merely monitoring content, the Flagler district with Securly will have the ability to do what it calls “behavioral profiling” by analyzing data generated by a user and flagging behavior that may point to suicidal thoughts or other harmful acts. That data, said Ryan Deising, the district’s IT director, is intended only to be turned over to counselors at a school. But when asked if the data would also be turned over to law enforcement, for example, Deising said it would have to be if the proper channels were followed, starting with the board attorney—presumably through warrants, subpoenas and the like, though the data itself would only be kept by the district for a limited span of time.
While Securly potentially offers the ability to scale up its behavioral profiling beyond suicidal or bullying red flags, “we have no intention of changing what the company has in place for identifying and flagging,” Deising said. “It is developed so that if there are patterns that show self-harm, those types of things, that’s what we’re going to be working off of. Any type of piece that’s flagged through the system is actually going to one of our counselors. It’s not going to our discipline piece, it’s going to our mental health counselors and then they will help make a determination of what was the best appropriate path from there.”
The systems also enhance and constantly update filters that have been in place for several years.
Deising presented the new wave of what the district is calling its new “digital safeguards for students” at a workshop Tuesday afternoon, eliciting mostly praise and few concerns from school board members.
“We’re responding to concerns from parents, from our staff. One of the biggest things about lack of participation in our take-home program,” Deising said of the district’s initiative that makes a laptop available for every student in middle and high school to take home, “parents felt they had little to no control over what their student could do when they went home. We had folks that would ask, well, can I buy content filter and when they’re not at home can I implement it, because I want my kid to be able to do X, Y and Z. Or, I don’t want my kid to do X, Y and Z.”
There was no system in place before to accommodate such requests. Now it does. “It gives some power back to the parent to control that device,” Deising said. Some 50 to 60 students at Matanzas and 100 to 120 at Flagler Palm Coast High School were not participating in the take-home program last year, though they could still have access to computers at their school. Deising would also hear from parents concerned about having any district device under their roof.
The system won’t be available to parents right away. Deising is hoping to recruit 200 to 300 parents as a pilot group this fall. “This is so new and I think I’m very curious to see the parent input in too, and the level of interest that they have,” Superintendent James Tager said, reserving more precise judgment. “I don’t know if you could ever totally control everything and I don’t know that that’s our business but I think whatever we can do to provide a safe environment for students is what we should do,” he said. The system also gives teachers more freedom to teach and focus students on lessons. “I don’t know if you could ever get ahead of this issue because everybody is so computer savvy,” Tager said, acknowledging that “that Big Brother factor is always going to be there.”
School board members took in the presentation and commented here and there, largely to share their approval, but the policy implications of the new systems were not discussed, as the systems are seen as more updated applications of an approach already in place, if less effectively and one-sidedly so: many times parents ask the district for reports on their children’s computer usage, but those reports may take time to generate and, sometimes, are not available since the information is stored only temporarily. “This gives parents a window into what’s happening with their students,” Deising said, more immediately than what the district could provide.
“This first year is kind of a learning situation for everyone, and we’ll see how it actually plays out,” the superintendent said.