Are classroom apps good for your kids — or simply 'surveillance'?

Do schoolroom apps really help kids, parents or teachers? Education and technology experts issue their report cards on apps such as Class Dojo and Seesaw.

Ottawa Morning's education, technology columnists weigh in

Are classroom apps such as ClassDojo and Seesaw beneficial, or nothing more than surveillance? Ottawa Morning's education and technology columnists reflect on this new way of learning what your kids are up to. (iStock)

If you've got a school-aged child, chances are you've downloaded at least one app that gives you a first-hand glimpse at exactly what they're up to.

But do apps such as ClassDojo, Remind and Seesaw really help kids, parents or teachers?

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning brought two of its regular contributors in Thursday morning to share their reflections with host Robyn Bresnahan.

Joel Westheimer is a professor in the University of Ottawa's faculty of education and also the show's education columnist.

And Mark Nunnikhoven is the show's technology columnist and vice-president of cloud research at Ottawa data security firm Trend Micro.

Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Mark Nunnikhoven, left, and Joel Westheimer, right, are the technology and education columnists respectively for CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. (CBC)

So tell me about some of these apps you use?

Mark: Seesaw is two parts. There's a part in the classroom, where the teacher has the ability for each child to create a journal, and then share moments of the classroom with the parents. The second half of the app is the parents' app — so I have that on my phone, and anytime one of my children has something shared, I get a notification.

It's a little bit of an insight, a window into the classroom.

What do you think about them?

Joel: Some of these apps of course are wonderful, certainly for teachers — because they give a quick way for giving feedback. The problem is that it inserts the parents in every minute of children's lives in the schools. When a child leaves home, part of what they're learning is how to develop independently, how to negotiate relationships with other adults — not your parents.

You lose the independent space for kids to develop, and you eat into the idea of building relationships in the classroom.

Can't these apps help start conversations with your child?

Joel: There's tons of research that shows that when parents are engaged and know about what their kids are learning, that's very beneficial for everyone involved.

The question is how you do that. You can send an email home once a week saying this is what we're going to be working on today. My concern is when it goes down to minute-by-minute surveillance. I don't know what else to call it.

What about the data collection that these apps carry out?

Mark: So for this column, I purposely didn't reach out to anybody — I just tried to just go from publicly-available resources to try to piece together what's going on. 

Most of these are U.S.-based companies, and we know the laws around data privacy and collection are extremely different in the U.S. versus Canada. As a parent and as a security professional, it's extremely difficult to find out what the rules are — let alone how the teachers and the students have been instructed in the use of these technologies. 

The simple answer is, I can't tell you because I couldn't piece it together. And that's a real problem. 

Joel: ClassDojo lets a teacher go around with an iPad and monitor the kids. And when a kid does something good, they give a point to that kid. And when a kid does something bad, they take away a point. They can take a picture.

I'm looking at Mark and Robyn's faces, and they're horrified! And I am, too. You can't really call it any other word than surveillance.

Do the benefits outweigh the risks? 

Mark: Yes and no. There's no easy answer here. As a parent, I like to see them progressing [but] whether you agree with the use of the app or not, what happens in the worst-case scenario? 

Has a privacy impact assessment been done? Has a security assessment of each of these apps been done? We, as a community, need to demand more structure around this to be transparent.