By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
When Andrew Rice first heard Montclair schools were piloting a platform to monitor students’ online classroom activity last week, he thought the news was “a little troubling to hear.”
“I wasn’t so concerned about them tracking [my son’s] Chromebook,” Rice said. “My son is in the third grade. I’m not terribly concerned about his browsing activity the same way you might be with an older child. I was concerned about whether it was picking up anything on my personal devices, which I use for work, doing all sorts of things.”
Rice figured that probably wasn’t the case. But when he checked the extensions settings on his Chrome browser, he saw one labeled “GoGuardian” — under a heading for “full access” to the tab he had open.
“It seemed to me to indicate that my son was still logged in,” Rice said. “Google Classroom was not open. He had just closed a window.”
Rice found himself in the same situation as many parents last week: first learning about GoGuardian from children who’d been told about it by teachers, and then from online coverage by Montclair Local and an announcement from Superintendent Jonathan Ponds in his weekly community bulletin to the school community, after the limited rollout began.
Ponds said in an email the district began piloting the platform because of “staff suggestions and the need for keeping students safe online.”
And though Ponds told parents in his Friday evening notice GoGuardian had only been rolled out so far in some classrooms, was only active when students were logged into their district accounts and could not see personal files, Montclair-focused social media forums lit up with parents’ questions: What can and can’t this platform see? Can it track my personal devices, if my children use them too? Will everything my children do be monitored?
“My first thought was that this sounded like spyware, and my second was frustration at what seemed to be, yet again, another bad job by the district to communicate with parents, guardians, caretakers and students about what looks to be like a major change,” Geoff Shandler, who has three children in the district, said.
An online petition popped up on Change.org over the weekend, urging the school district to halt its use of GoGuardian. By Tuesday, about 550 people had signed. There, the petition joined more than 50 others, in other communities, where parents or students wanted their own school systems to abandon the platform.
One of the signers, Herlize Alphonse, wrote: “No one got in the way of your growing up[.] Why are you getting in the way of ours?”
Alphonse continued: “This is the exact reason we don’t tell adults anything.”
But some of those discussing the platform online saw benefits.
“I think some parts of this are good,” Danielle Raymond Neff wrote in a comment on Montclair Local’s Facebook page. “It gives the teachers the ability to close kids’ tabs if they have other ones open while class is in session.”
And James Cornejo wrote that monitoring is nothing new — it often applies to public computers like those in libraries, or to work computers provided by employers.
“Wait, can’t a student just create two profiles and have one specifically for school?” he wrote. “This is NOT a new concept[.] The only new thing is kids are using their personal computer to school virtually.”
What GoGuardian does (and doesn’t) monitor
Ponds, in his community bulletin and in emails to Montclair Local, said when students are signed onto district-issued Chromebooks or any computers running Chrome browsers using their MPSDNJ.US accounts, teachers can “can close tabs for students, send messages to students and lock student screens.” Teachers’ chats with students are logged. Students can’t communicate with one another through the platform.
In essence: Even during remote learning (as all Montclair students continue to do during the pandemic and an ongoing dispute between the school district and its union), a teacher can virtually look over a student’s shoulder during classwork. Ponds said the district would reach out to the school community for feedback from families before GoGuardian is rolled out districtwide.
GoGuardian, in its online marketing materials and several blog posts, describes powerful, thorough tools for tracking students’ behavior whenever they’re logged into a school system’s account. Its suite is capable of blocking sites districts deem off-limits, logging browser histories, and monitoring for activity that suggests students wish to do themselves or others harm, it says. In some cases, that monitoring can be left enabled around the clock, but the company provides administrative tools to disable it by conditions such as IP address or time of day.
Company spokesman Jeff Gordon said Montclair’s application of the suite will be much more limited — only tracking activity that occurs during a specific classroom session, using the GoGuardian Teacher product.
“Other products, such as GoGuardian Admin, are designed to protect students beyond the teaching session,” he told Montclair Local by email. “A use case for this would be, for example, giving students the ability to asynchronously conduct internet research on a topic while blocking inappropriate websites that go against the school’s code of conduct.”
Teachers will be able to see their students’ browsing activity during classroom sessions, but not their histories before or after it, he said.
No version of GoGuardian is active when a non-school account is being used. On a Chromebook — like those issued to 1,300 students heading into the current school year — logging out means ending a computing session entirely. On another computer with a Chrome browser, that means entering the settings for “Sync and Google services,” then under “People,” clicking the option “Turn Off.”
A “shield” logo appears in a Chrome browser, to the right of the URL bar, whenever a student is logged into a school account that uses GoGuardian and could be monitored, the company says. The logo doesn’t indicate whether GoGuardian is active at that moment.
Several parents who approached Montclair Local this week told the news organization they wanted to opt their students out of the platform, worried about their children being monitored in ways they hadn’t agreed to and weren’t sure they understood. Gordon said it’s technically possible for the platform to accommodate one-off requests to opt out, but it would be up to the district to decide if that’s appropriate.
Ponds didn’t say whether the district would allow that, but said the district would follow its technology use policy.
“It may be helpful to know that 10,000 other schools, including our neighbors Millburn, Livingston, [South] Orange-Maplewood and Orange use GoGuardian,” Ponds wrote in the community bulletin.
“It could be that it’s fine and dandy,” Shandler said. “It could be that it’s the worst invasion of privacy that Montclair’s seen in a long time. It’s added stress for these students who are always dealing with so much.”
What monitoring is OK?
Chad A. Marlow, senior advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he’s been observing GoGuardian and similar platforms for some time. He’s not convinced by claims they can effectively spot troubling behavior, like activity that suggests a student might be contemplating suicide or violence.
“At its core, there are two facts about GoGuardian that don’t go away. One, it spies on students. Two, that they’re trying to make money with their product,” he said. “So they’re coming up with new ideas on how to sell it every day.”
Some of Marlow’s concerns relate to the scenario GoGuardian said won’t apply to Montclair schools — one where a device left logged in can scoop up information indefinitely. He noted students may continue to use their district-issued devices after the school day is done. Without being able to see GoGuardian’s code, he said, it’s hard to know or trust where the limits on its functionality are.
“The first question is: Do you want your kid being monitored at this level?” Marlow said. “And the second is: Are you comfortable with the idea that this technology is going to end up surveilling not just your kid, but anyone who ends up using that computer?”
For many families, he noted, a district-issued Chromebook may be the only computer a child or a whole family can access. “You don’t want student privacy to depend on whether the family can afford a computer or not,” he said.
The company says it doesn’t sell, trade or rent student information — and that the school system owns the data it collects. It says much of the implementation of its technology comes down to a district’s individual policies.
Even if monitoring is limited to classwork, Marlow argued, it’s not necessarily appropriate — and could put students at risk.
“It is very wrong for a school to assume that everything a kid types when they’re doing research or that sort of thing is fair game because they’re a child,” Marlow said. “You can think for example of a kid who may be wondering about their sexual orientation. Even if the school didn’t learn about it [through the monitoring], for a student to know that ‘My computer is being watched, and I don’t know what the school is looking for’ — that might prevent a student from reaching out for help. A kid may have multiple sclerosis but not want the world to know about that. Maybe a kid lives in a Democratic area and they love Ted Cruz.”
Montclair public schools have been operating entirely remotely since the novel coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. A dispute between the district and the Montclair Education Association prevented a planned return for some in-person learning in January, and the district has since sued the union to force staffers to return to classrooms.
Rice said it may be reasonable to give teachers some access, and some tools for maintaining order and safety during their classes. But he worries about the limits of that access — especially in a remote-learning environment — and how it will be explained to the school community.
“As I said to Dr. Ponds in an email to him, we’re currently in a situation where we’re constructing classrooms in a personal space, oftentimes, using a personal device. … We shouldn’t expect kids to have the same finely developed notion of what constitutes private time as we expect from adults.”