3rd Party Apps – TABOO?

Colleagues in my district are buzzing about third party apps that store student information. Class Dojo and Edmodo are two that many teachers have come to rely on, and suddenly concerns about the legalities of sharing and storing student information online have come to our attention. Making individual decisions to use apps in our classrooms (those that aren’t authorized by the district) means we are responsible for any potential legal issues – without the support of the district or our union.  It’s true that anything can become a legal issue these days, so the concerns are valid. But I also believe there are safe ways to use technology in our classrooms, and that we should be able to put some safety measures in place that protect our students’ privacy, and our professional use of third party apps.

One concern lies in the fact that many of these apps are free to use, and that there must be some trade-off for companies making them available. Is it possible that the data stored in these databases could be aggregated and analyzed in ways we can’t foresee? Certainly identity theft could be an potential issue, but that’s just one concern.

Another concern is that student information is being shared with entire classes of students. As a parent, I wouldn’t want my sons’ grades to posted in front of the classroom. A majority of parents support me there. In essence, that’s what Class Dojo does. Many teachers post their Dojo classrooms, filled with little monster avatars, and add and take away individual points based on student behavior or progress with the whole class watching. While the data being shared doesn’t qualify as “grades”, it is reflective of how a student is performing, and calling attention to who the “good” kids and “bad” kids are. The stigma, and potentially damaging implications just aren’t worth the risk in my opinion.

Are any of these student tracking apps worth the risk? We live in a world filled with educational applications that help us teach, collect data, and share information with parents. And many of our classrooms are filled with devices that allow students to create and problem-solve online. I’d like to know that I can safely create a class of students whose progress I can view and analyze. Is that so wrong? Do parents need to be a part of the equation? If I can see where my students are struggling, shouldn’t I be able to use that to individualize their learning plans and be a more effective teacher for them? If real first and last names aren’t used, and students aren’t identifiable outside my classroom, shouldn’t that be enough to make these apps safe to use? What are your thoughts?

What I learned on 11-30-12

Despite the fact that I stayed home from school today, I was available to my technology students as if I were right there with them. I did this through the DyKnow application that has been installed on all of the tablets at my school. It wasn’t the first time I’ve used DyKnow, but it was the first time I’ve used it with my freshmen, and the first time I’ve enabled the chat tool from home to communicate with the kids. I was actually quite impressed with how effective the process seemed to be as learning tool. I began the class by broadcasting my message to all of their tablets – that they should open their email to access today’s assignment. I was able to watch the monitors of my 24 students as they accessed their network folders and began working. I sent another message to the group letting them know that I would be monitoring their progress and that they shouldn’t hesitate to message me if they had a problem. Since this was the first time my freshmen had ever experienced my “absence” I think they were pretty excited about the new technology. They all started typing in response. “Hi Mrs. K.” “Whatcha doin’?” “Hey”

I didn’t respond to any of that because I wanted to set the tone that we weren’t “chatting”. Within the first five minutes one of my students sent me a question about why she couldn’t get her chart to show up in Excel. I was thrilled with the question because the student was one who has been struggling for a while, but has NEVER asked me a question in class before. I responded privately to ask if she had selected the data to include in the chart. She said yes, but since I was able to observe everyone’s monitors I could see that she had not. I tried for a few minutes to explain what she was doing incorrectly, without success (as indicated by what I was seeing.) After a few minutes, I messaged another one of my students privately (who I had seen was finished with that portion) and asked if she could please help explain the problem to her classmate. I saw within a couple of minutes that the problem had been resolved, and I blackened the latter student’s screen for three seconds and to send her a message with big white letters that said THANK YOU!

What I learned today is that because some of my students may not be comfortable with letting their classmates know they don’t understand something, it’s a good idea to provide some alternative ways for them to address the problem with me. I plan to speak with those students when I return on Monday, to let them know that they can email me (or chat if they’d prefer) to ask questions if they’re more comfortable doing so.