Privacy Concerns for ClassDojo and Other Tracking Apps for Schoolchildren

Privacy Concerns for ClassDojo and Other Tracking Apps for Schoolchildren

TMI? Not enough? The reality is that the world of big data allows us to store and analyze an unlimited amount of information about anything, including students. This is the medical model, coming to education, using past behaviors to prescribe future paths. It also allows us to predict activity, which, in the case of student behavior – both social and academic – can limit the possibilities and choices students are presented, leaving no room for inspiration, connecting with that magic teacher or learning approach, or having some kind of ah-hah moment that allows that lights up their minds.

Posted By Jason Ohler 

Original Source 

HUNTER, N.Y. — For better or for worse, the third graders in Greg Fletcher’s class at Hunter Elementary School always know where they stand.

One morning in mid-October, Mr. Fletcher walked to the front of the classroom where an interactive white board displayed ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.

“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.

The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.

ClassDojo is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States, according to its developer. The app is among the innovations to emerge from the estimated $7.9 billion education software market aimed at students from prekindergarten through high school. Although there are similar behavior-tracking programs, they are not as popular as ClassDojo.

Many teachers say the app helps them automate the task of recording classroom conduct, as well as allowing them to communicate directly with parents.

But some parents, teachers and privacy law scholars say ClassDojo, along with other unproven technologies that record sensitive information about students, is being adopted without sufficiently considering the ramifications for data privacy and fairness, like where and how the data might eventually be used.

These critics also say that the carrot-and-stick method of classroom discipline is outmoded, and that behavior apps themselves are too subjective, enabling teachers to reward or penalize students for amorphous acts like “disrespect.” They contend that behavior databases could potentially harm students’ reputations by unfairly saddling some with “a problem child” label that could stick with them for years.

ClassDojo does not seek explicit parental consent for teachers to log detailed information about a child’s conduct. Although the app’s terms of service state that teachers who sign up guarantee that their schools have authorized them to do so, many teachers can download ClassDojo, and other free apps, without vetting by school supervisors. Neither the New York City nor Los Angeles school districts, for example, keep track of teachers independently using apps.

If parents wish to remove their child’s data from ClassDojo, they must ask the teacher or email the company.

“There is a real question in my mind as to whether teachers have the authority to sign up on behalf of the school,” said Steven J. McDonald, the general counsel of the Rhode Island School of Design and a leading specialist on federal education privacy law. “Since this is a free service,” he added, “one wonders if there is some other trade-off.”

Sam Chaudhary, the co-founder of ClassDojo, said his company recently updated its privacy policyto say that it does not “sell, lease or share your (or children’s) personal information to any third party” for advertising or marketing.

“We have committed in the terms of service to never selling the data,” Mr. Chaudhary said. “It’s the user’s own data.”

The company plans to generate revenue by marketing additional services, like more detailed behavior analyses, to parents.

But ClassDojo could make money from the information it collects in other ways. Another section of the privacy policy says the company may show users advertisements “based in part on your personally identifiable information.”

Mr. Chaudhary said ClassDojo gave students feedback as a way of encouraging them to develop skills like leadership and teamwork. Some special-education teachers also use the program to set individualized goals with students and their parents.

“Kids are being judged at school every day,” Mr. Chaudhary said. “They are just being judged on a narrow set of things. If we can broaden that set, it’s a good thing.”

But critics say that the kind of classroom discipline that Class Dojo promotes is not made effective by packaging it in an app that awards virtual badges for obedience.

“This is just a flashy digital update of programs that have long been used to treat children like pets, bribing or threatening them into compliance,” said Alfie Kohn, the author of “The Myth of the Spoiled Child” and other books on learning and child-rearing.

Teachers who use ClassDojo can choose which behaviors to reward or discourage. Kelly Connolly-Hickey, an English teacher at West Babylon Senior High School in West Babylon, N.Y., rewards students who “brought in supplies” or “brightened someone’s day” while docking points for cellphone use.

“Knowing that they are being graded on how they behave and participate every day makes it easier for them to stay on task,” Ms. Connolly-Hickey said of her students.

She added that she had not read ClassDojo’s policies on handling student data, but that she had shown the principal of her school how she used the app.

“I’m one of those people who, when the terms of service are 18 pages, I just click agree,” she said.

Teachers can decide whether to display students’ points or to use the system in private mode. Mr. Fletcher, the third-grade teacher, said he used ClassDojo publicly in an effort to be transparent. He deliberately awards many more points for good behavior than subtracts them for being off-task.

Last month, after a well-mannered class discussion about the motivations of characters in a picture book, Mr. Fletcher invited each student to the white board to award him- or herself a point for teamwork. With each point, the app emitted a contented ping.

“I don’t ever award the kids points or take away points without them knowing,” he said. “What I am trying to do is put the ownership back on the kid.”

Melinda McCool, the school’s principal, said she felt Mr. Fletcher used the app judiciously, and had asked him to show other teachers how he used it.

But at least one school is concerned that the app could make a student feel publicly shamed.

“I have told all my staff, ‘You cannot display this data publicly,’ “ said Matt Renwick, the principal of Howe Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

His school also requires teachers to obtain permission from a child’s parent before they start using any app that transfers the student’s data to a company.

Parents are also divided over ClassDojo.

Some like being able to use the app to follow their child’s progress and receive reports from teachers.

“It’s a great way to get the prognosis on your child,” said Gabrielle Canezin, whose daughter is in Mr. Fletcher’s class.

But Tony Porterfield, a software engineer in Los Altos, Calif., asked a teacher to remove his son’s information from ClassDojo. He said he was concerned that it might later be aggregated and analyzed in unforeseen ways.

“It creates a label for a child,” he said. “It’s a little early to be doing that to my 6-year-old.”

ClassDojo has received nearly $10 million from investors, including General Catalyst Partners, Shasta Ventures, New Schools Venture Fund, Paul Graham and Yuri Milner. Mr. Chaudhary says he and his team have studied ClassDojo’s effectiveness by visiting classrooms, conducting weekly phone calls with a few dozen teachers, and surveying 1,000 teachers.

Such an anecdotal approach does not sit well with evidence-based educators.

“That’s like polling people in McDonald’s about how they like the food,” said Brett Clark, the director of technology at Greater Clark County Schools in Jeffersonville, Ind. “They are not asking the teachers who looked at the app, walked away and said, ‘Not in my classroom.’ ”

December 2014

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