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Privacy concerns arise over monitoring software

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As students in school districts in the northern suburbs and elsewhere increasingly trade pencils and spiral-bound notebooks for laptops and iPads, educators say digital distractions also have begun to become a part of the classroom.

It's an environment where doodling gives way to tweeting and where teachers have to get comfortable with bright screens standing between them and their students.

"This is somewhat nerve-racking," said Scott Glass, an English teacher at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, where a so-called "one-to-one" technology initiative launched this school year. "Unless I get behind (the students), which I don't do often, I just have to trust that they're responsible."

The technology initiatives, in which educators aim for a ratio of one device for every student, have become increasingly popular with school districts.

Some schools — including those in Glenview, Mundelein and Des Plaines — have either started using or are considering special software to check what students are doing on those devices. The technology is intended to help teachers manage classrooms and avoid distractions, but some argue the monitoring could create privacy issues.

Especially popular among some school districts that use ChromeBooks is the Teacher Dashboard, developed by California-based Hapara Inc. The product integrates with the Google Chrome browser and allows teachers to remotely get a snapshot of student activity and see what students are doing online.

Mundelein Consolidated High School District 120 and Maine Township High School District 207 started this year to use the software. Others, such as Glenbrook High School District 225, are looking into similar tools for the 2014-15 year.

"The teachers love it," said Dan Crowe, director of information technology for District 120. "Hapara has a lot of benefits."

Crowe said the software's main purpose is to make it easier for teachers to access students' documents, organize classroom resources and share information online.

For example, instead of waiting for each student to open a particular website, the teacher can immediately bring up the needed web page on each student's computer screen during class.

The remote-access capability of Hapara's software lets teachers see what web pages students are looking at on their browser and even allows them to force-close web pages.

Jan Zawadzki, founder of Hapara, which has been around for about four years, said his company encourages school districts to restrict the use of remote control to school hours and the school's Internet network.

That way, when students take the devices home, they cannot be accessed from outside. The Teacher Dashboard also cannot access the computer's web camera, Zawadzki said.

Despite the software's restrictions, some experts say privacy and liability issues may arise from using similar types of monitoring tools.

"I think school districts need to really think this through," said Lori Andrews, a professor of law at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Andrews said the software could contribute to a violation of students' privacy as teachers and administrators theoretically could have access to what students are doing on the devices at home.

Schools also could be taking on a liability, she said, if they fail to stop students from doing something harmful to others or themselves.

School officials using the software say the students' computers and each email and file on them are property of the district and are public records.

"Hapara doesn't give us any more access than we already have," Crowe said, adding that when students work on their school-issued computers, they technically don't have any right to privacy.

Still other school districts, like Niles Township High School District 219, prefer to take a different approach, leaving students in charge of their devices.

"The students eventually will have to have control over their devices," said Guy Ballard, District 219's technology director. He said District 219 considered getting the Teacher Dashboard but did not because it required students to give up their administrative rights over the devices.

Ballard added that District 219, which started its one-to-one initiative about four years ago, gives the devices as gifts to their students, unlike other school districts, which maintain ownership over the technology.

Ballard said there are other ways to make sure students are paying attention in class without the use of monitoring software. Teachers always have the power to tell students to close their devices during class.

But are the students more distracted when they have access to thousands upon thousands of websites at their fingertips? That question is hard to answer, officials say.

"Measuring distraction is a challenge," said Ryan Bretag, a director of instructional technology at District 225. "The key skill we want our students to have is self-regulation."

Some local high school students also expressed mixed views on whether distraction becomes an issue with one-to-one technology.

Joshua Spaeth, a freshman at Glenbrook North High School, said he sees his classmates get off track in class.

"A lot of kids get distracted," he said. "It happens all the time."

Denatra Moshi, a senior Glenbrook South High School student, said he has noticed some students play online games during class. He said he once saw a classmate browse through Craigslist for cars while the teacher was talking.

Still others, like Glenbrook North High School freshman Ethan Pressl, say they don't see a widespread problem.

"Most people are on top of it," he said.

It's also not a secret that if a student refuses to pay attention, he or she can find a way to get distracted whether it's through daydreaming or through the ChromeBook, officials said.

"Were the kids distracted in class without these tools?" said Glenbrook South Principal Brian Wegley. "Absolutely."

achachkevitch@tribune.com | Twitter: @chachkevitch

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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