At What Point Does Education Become Spying

Posted by By at 23 November, at 14 : 00 PM Print

Our children are getting entirely too used to living in a police state.

I remember when Officer Friendly graced children’s book. He often was a bit portly in his double-breasted overcoat with the shiny brass buttons. He carried a shillelagh, often in both hands, behind his back. He smiled at children, joked with them, and helped them out of minor childhood troubles while encouraging them to avoid more serious transgressions.

What brought that to mind was an article in TechNews Daily about a new program that will allow teachers to look over their students’ shoulders – even when they’re not in school.

If all goes to plan, teachers, beginning in 2013, will be able to track the time their students spend studying from e-textbooks, even while the student is home. If the student highlights a passage, the teacher will know. If the student makes notes about a paragraph, the teacher will know. If the student spends a night at the movies instead of reading the night’s homework assignment, the teacher will know.

The new service, called CourseSmart Engagement Score Technology, reportedly is being tested at Villanova University, Rasmussen College, and Texas A&M before a planned nationwide roll-out next year. CourseSmart claims to be the worlds largest publisher of digital textbooks and the only provider of digital course materials able to combine curriculum, content and delivery into a single solution. The company claims to list more than 90 percent of the core titles offered by traditional print publishers, at up to 60 percent of the cost.

Teachers once had to give a test and look in the low scores for students who did not do their homework. With the analytics service, they will know how many pages were viewed and how long students spent reading each page. In a press release, CourseSmart said the service “to identify ‘at risk’ students based on engagement with assigned course materials and correlate this to overall student performance, which will help to aid retention and ultimately, improve learning outcomes.”

Noble purposes, certainly. A school purchased analytics enabled books from a single company, which collects students’ usage data – the way Facebook and Google collect information about our Internet browsing and shopping habits Then the school buys the data from the company, and all for the purpose of improving our children’s education.

There was a time when Officer Friendly was replaced by a police officer, whose purpose was to keep the school safe by gathering tips about whose parents might be sharing some marijuana before bedtime. Then, because lockers belonged to the schools, leaving students with no expectation of privacy, dogs and random open-locker searches became accepted tools. When we board an airplane, government minions poke and prod our checked baggage, looking for dangerous underwear and valuable cameras to confiscate in an effort to “keep us safe.”

We have become willing conspirators in an inexorable march toward the government-knows-all society of the last century’s science fiction, leaving our most private information on Facebook for all to read.

A young man of my close acquaintance was an engineer at a nuclear power plant. When the plant instituted random drug testing among its employees, the young engineer said anyone who could object to such a safety-enhancing policy must be guilty of doing drugs.

Then, one New Years Eve, the fellow, whose religion forbad him alcoholic consumption, was stopped at a random DUI checkpoint. He was livid. He didn’t drink, and the officer admitted there was no reason for suspicion other than, “you can’t be too careful; we’re just trying to keep the roads safe.”

Somehow the idea is bothersome that investigators soon might not be required to visit the public library to learn what books we read, and which passages evoked our highest interest. And our kids will be used to it.

After all, their school book reading has been monitored and algorithms employed to identify future chemical engineers and tree-huggers.

Photo by Todd Huffman

This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at - Email jmesseder

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