School Technology Programs Need Transparency

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By Jesse Emspak | August 21, 2010 11:07 AM EST

Schools that give out laptops to students need to make sure they have checks on what kind of monitoring software they have, as well as make sure all the stakeholders are involved in the decisions about the program, experts say.

In the wake of the revelations that students in Lower Merion Township had been photographed by their laptop's webcams, a number of parents called school officials in districts that have laptop programs. "We got a lot of calls about this," said Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director for the state of Maine, which has a statewide laptop program for its schools. "The day I saw this within an hour I sent an email out to reassure parents."

A civil lawsuit against the Lower Merion schools is pending. Federal authorities declined to press criminal charges, citing a lack of criminal intent. The Montgomery County attorney general has not yet said whether it will prosecute.

Mao says the rules in Maine are such that any changes in the laptop program require a lot of public input. There also isn't any way for the school to make decisions about software without notifying the parents.

The Maine program does not install monitoring software on its laptops largely as a cost-saving measure. The state has extra laptops to replace those that are stolen, and there are so many that even a small license fee for each machine could become prohibitive. "We have some 70,000 machines," Mao said. "A $10 license fee would be $700,000." He added that monitoring software to detect theft often doesn't work very well, and it is often cheaper to just replace a laptop that is stolen.

In Henrico County, Va., Lloyd Brown was blunt. "That guy wouldn't be working for me anymore," he said, referring to the school staffers who turned on the monitoring software in Lower Merion. There is monitoring software on the computers his district issues to students, but it is only activated when a police report is filed. The software on the computers also can't cover its own tracks, the way the monitoring software in Lower Merion could.

The school administration also has a publicly stated acceptable use policy, and a policy group that makes decisions about what software is able to go on the machines with input from parents and teachers.

Parry Aftab, a privacy lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, said the Lower Merion district committed a clear violation of several laws and even the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. She says schools have to operate under rules set by both the state and federal government, and that what happened in Lower Marion was "just plain stupid."

Aftab says she advises school districts about privacy, and says that she asks that they always think about not only what they want to accomplish - preventing theft, for example - but exactly how they want to go about it. "We do a lot with working groups of students, parents and teachers," she said. "A lot of it is deciding what the rules should be."

She adds that setting up technology programs at schools involves two things: law and best practice, and they are not always identical. But it comes down to openness. "You have to inform people," she said. "You can't do things without telling them."

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