Monitoring software sparks concern, relief

School-issued Chromebooks to include way for parents to track children's activity

Parents of sophomores and juniors at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools and seventh-graders at Jordan Middle School will soon have the ability to track their children's activity on district-issued Chromebook laptops.

A new filtering and monitoring software, Securly, was recently installed on the Chromebooks, which students have been taking home for both schoolwork and personal use since last fall.

The district adopted the new software in response to parent concerns, according to district staff.

In particular, parents of middle school students told the Weekly the district rolled out the take-home option without fully understanding the impact that unfettered access to technology can have on 12- and 13-year-olds and how their parents might want a way to limit at-home computer use.

But for older students worried about their privacy and security, the new software is cause for concern -- concerns Gunn and Paly students said have been compounded by a lack of clear communication with them about Securly's main features.

Securly, a cloud-based security company in San Jose, offers web filtering for K-12 school districts as well as an optional "parent portal" that allows parents to customize what their children can and can't view on school-owned devices and to monitor their children's use, including on social media, via a dashboard. Parents can also choose to receive weekly email reports on their child's activity.

The parental control that Securly offers is rare, school district Chief Technology Officer Derek Moore told the Weekly. In fact, Securly is the only company that offers it to parents rather than to school districts, Moore said. Securly does not have access to students' personal information, he added.

The cost of the new software is $11,560, according to the district.

The mother of two Jordan seventh-graders, who requested to remain anonymous, said one of her children went on a two-week "YouTube binge" after getting his Chromebook. He would tell his parents he was doing homework but would be multitasking with multiple websites open, she said.

"I thought, 'Maybe it's good, because they're learning how to handle this while they're young and binging now rather than later,'" she said. "But they're playing outside less and doing more surfing the web. There's shopping, there's sports, there's social media, potentially."

Previously, her sons had limited, timed access to a family iMac and iPad. With the Chromebooks at home, she and her husband have had to act like the police, she said.

"They just turned it on suddenly," she said. "We weren't ready to cope."

Similarly, Deborah Bennett said conflict over her son's Chromebook led to a "physical tug of war," as she and her husband had to take it away from him when they thought he was overusing it. The Chromebook complicated careful restrictions they had put in place for his at-home computer use, including password protection on the computer so he had to ask his parents to turn it on and a remote shutdown capability if he stayed on the computer beyond an established time. Otherwise, he would play games and watch videos that distracted him from homework, Bennett said.

With the Chromebook, he carried it with him everywhere, Bennett said, and would even stay away from home to use wifi at other places to avoid his parents' watchful eyes.

"It came home with no filtering solution recommended in place or any directions or anything. It just came home," she said.

Bennett was critical of the district's rollout of the Chromebooks, which she said happened with insufficient communication with parents or feasible solutions for those who might want to restrict their children's use. She and her husband ultimately followed a district recommendation to use a separate security software to block certain websites and to reconfigure their router to put parental controls in place -- solutions that were hard to figure out even for two people who work in high-tech, she said. (The other Jordan mother agreed the solutions were too difficult to figure out.)

Both mothers said Securly sounds promising -- particularly the regular report on their children's use to determine what actually might need to be restricted -- but they have received no communication from the district about it.

Students' privacy concerns

At the Jan. 24 school board meeting, Gunn junior Eli Tannenwald said that students are "very concerned" about their privacy on the Chromebooks. Poor communication from the administration about the change has led to misinformation and rumors spreading, he said.

Students were notified in January in a short message posted on Schoology, the district's online management system, that indicated there would be a change in the log-in for anyone taking home a school-issued Chromebook. The message said Securly was being added for "content filtering" and included a link to the company's website but did not provide details about the software's features.

Many students were unaware of the change until after it was implemented and are concerned the decision was made "without transparency" or student input, senior Shannon Yang told the Weekly.

"By listening to only one group, the parents, (district officials) effectively undermined their duty to those at the center of it all: students," she said. "It should also not be up to the district to decide who gets to win in a parent-child interaction."

Yang and other members of Gunn's student government body have formed a task force to gather more information about Securly's still "murky" implications for students. They are also planning a "sit-in" for the Feb. 14 school board meeting "to encourage people to share their thoughts about Securly and have an open discussion, one that was never had before implementation," Yang said.

Moore acknowledged student concerns about privacy but said school and district staff heard "loud and clear" at parent meetings on technology this fall that they wanted to be able to monitor and protect children using the school devices.

"Nobody's happy with knowing that someone's watching but the reality is, this is a school and ... we have a responsibility to keep kids safe and to use our resources appropriately," he said. "That's really all that this is. It's not an overarching monitoring and Big Brother-type thing."

The district started sending Chromebooks home with Gunn sophomores last school year as part of its participation in the federal government's "Future Ready" initiative, a national effort to transition school districts into a new era of leveraging technology at school. One component of that initiative is a 1:1 Chromebooks program, which provides a device for every student.

This year, the district expanded the access. Students who take Chromebooks home, and their parents, must first sign a classroom and home-use agreement.

The program also aims to ensure equitable access to technology for all students. Given how students now feel uncomfortable using the Chromebooks, however, some low-income students may avoid them, Yang said.

"By implementing Securly, the district is going against the purpose of the 1:1 program," she said.

Approximately 65 to 70 percent of eligible Gunn students, compared to 36 percent at Paly, are taking the laptops home, according to Moore. More Paly students bring their own devices to school, he added.

Close to 5,500 Chromebooks are in use throughout the district. At many schools, iPads and MacBooks (as well as desktop computers) are also available.

As more and more technology is integrated into Palo Alto's classrooms, the district takes increasing concerns around privacy, security and safety "very seriously," Moore said. The district vets all of its technology contracts against recently passed laws regarding protection of student data, he said.

The addition of Securly has not changed the district's primary filtering practices, which are aligned with the Children's Internet Protection Act requirement that school districts use filters to protect students from harmful or obscene online content, such as child pornography, Moore said.

The district is preparing to seek public feedback on its acceptable-use policy for school devices and is updating its student technology handbook. Students and parents can also weigh in on the handbook before any revisions are implemented for the 2017-18 school year.

On March 22, the district will host a parent-education event on technology in partnership with Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides education and advocacy to families to promote safe technology and media use for children. The event will explore the "realities families face in the digital age, including tools and resources to support families," Moore said.


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18 people like this
Posted by Fed up Jordan parent
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Feb 10, 2017 at 8:51 am

Hey Weekly - instead of mounting another PAUSD witch hunt on a non-issue, let's instead talk about all of the ways the Chromebooks are helping teachers do their jobs more efficiently! Let's find out how the teachers are able to differentiate instruction and how kids are able to be more creative, do more research, and communicate better with their teachers.

As for this statement, "It came home with no filtering solution recommended in place or any directions or anything. It just came home," It's just not true.
The chromebooks were rolled out smoothly and came home with a lengthy Rules of Acceptable Use policy that parents and students had to sign. You can view it here:
Web Link

I attended one of the Jordan Chromebook information nights and there were about 10 other parents there. The second one had about the same attendance. There were a few parents concerned about monitoring and those questions were addressed. Where were all of the concerned parents then?

Parents in this town need to start parenting. It's getting really ridiculous when you start blaming the school for your kid's YouTube binge. Tell your kids "no" if they've been on their devices too long. Tell them they can only use the Chromebooks in the kitchen or family room where you can monitor them. Take some responsibility and do your job!

12 people like this
Posted by AJ Lumsdaine
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 10, 2017 at 9:45 am

Sadly, passive control measures, while necessary, are just a bandaid, and may leave everyone feeling inadequate or lead to fingerpointing when it's not anyone's fault. Taking the Big Picture here, Parents it's not your kids' fault. This shouldn't be such a conflict, for parents, kids, or the district. Technology use can be very beneficial, even gaming (see Jane McGonigal's work), but unfortunately, the big problem here isn't willpower or control, it's that even in the intended use of devices, even if Security does everything everyone wants and doesn't want, we all lose against the attention merchants, and it's not just ads or unsavory sites.

Former Google exec Tristan Harris writes a lot on this issue:
Web Link
"The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” “You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”"

I hope when this discussion enters the public domain at 25 Churchill, we all put aside any assumptions that this is a willpower or parenting issue, or that the district is trying to be Big Brother or could control it all if they just did something different. We're all trying to cope with the best way to handle getting the benefits of the technology when we have no control over what the attention merchants, the thousand people on the other side of the screen who have taken advantage of brain science to keep us there, have designed into the technology to keep us staring there and not moving away. (As much as I love what I can achieve with it, I sometimes call my personal tech "the dementor on the desk", in a nod to Harry Potter).

I think ultimately the answer is artificial intelligence. I believe using AI to aid and allow people to use all of their technology the way they want, acknowledging that all humans have finite time and are happiest and most effective when they have the most autonomy possible within the constraints of not impinging on others' autonomy, is the next killer app in technology. It could instantly give people control over their use of technology, regardless of the attention merchants, and thus would break the incentive to continue this economic model that has the energies of those thousand people on the other side of the screen wanting to keep you there instead of helping you optimize the use of technology relative to your finite time in life. (Anyone in tech who wants to work with some independent schoolers to develop said AI, talk to me...)

I mean, for example, why is it harder to leave in the middle of an action drama or good romance movie than at the end? It's designed to take advantage of certain human traits to keep you engrossed and lead you to the end, to keep you there for the whole thing. But it's also designed to leave you satisfied at the end. People willingly get up at the end of a movie even as they are loathe to leave just to find a restroom in the middle. Note that if movies didn't do both, they wouldn't be able to compete with all the others that do. But the rest of our technology is only designed to keep us there, not to let us get what we paid for and leave. Not, at least, without a fight.

When I want to consume television, I can decide, oh, I only have time for a half hour comedy, or a 90 minute movie, and I know that I can expect a certain arc of commitment of my attention and then I am happy to get up when it is done. This control does not prevent me from wanting to watch other movies, quite the contrary. But technologists haven't caught on to that ethos yet. With gaming, for example, storytelling is hugely important, but there is no equivalent to giving users the full story as in movies. It's all about keeping us there. I think kids should be able to play video games, but it only won't create this conflict (as in this Chromebook situation) when game designs give users the choice, like with a movie, to move through that full arc in a predetermined amount of time, like a movie does.

Coming back to this specific situation, I hope people will remember the above as this unfolds. I don't think there are any easy answers here, even as absolutely everyone - the parents, the district, the students - is obviously doing their best.

I think this is a worthy effort but that everyone will ultimately find that passive control and seeing this as just about willpower will prove unsatisfactory.

9 people like this
Posted by AJ Lumsdaine
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 10, 2017 at 9:52 am

PS - I thought this was a thoughtful article that presented our struggle with technology in this situation quite well. I hope, especially in these times, that we can all look at thoughtful discussion and facts, and even disagreement, as the beneficial things they are in a free society.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 10, 2017 at 9:59 am

I think it boils down to the fact that there isn't one parenting standard and this isn't a one size fits all situation.

I see many parents giving their toddlers their phones with a kid friendly app to keep them amused in the car, or at a restaurant. These toddlers also soon learn how to manage a tablet. I have no idea what types of parental controls these parents put on the devices and I am sure it varies from parent to parent. On the other hand, I see some parents who won't allow anything other than Disney type movies and tv shows and no technology until (insert all sorts of ages).

When we see that there are now devices such as Google Home that enable a child to ask almost anything of a device and parents actually encouraging their use for kids, it bothers me a lot especially having seen some of the viral videos of what happens when a child asks the "wrong" question.

Some classrooms ban the use of phones, and others encourage it for taking pictures of homework assignments or videoing a specific math lesson. Some schools use technology a lot more than others and this is not just a PAUSD issue.

When it comes down to these issues particularly in high schools, it is getting increasingly difficult for parents to monitor. I personally have very mixed feelings about this.

10 people like this
Posted by Ethan Teo
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2017 at 10:02 am

I'm one of several Editors-in-Chief of The Campanile, Palo Alto High School's student-run newspaper. I would strongly encourage anybody reading this article to also check out the editorial piece that we wrote on Feb. 1 regarding this very same issue of Chromebook privacy. The link to it is below.

We second many of the student concerns voiced in this article - while the Chromebooks certainly have been beneficial in many ways, there is cause for concern regarding its privacy guidelines with the implementation of the Securly program. Feel free to leave comments on our editorial piece as well if you have any feedback, we don't get enough of those!

Web Link

5 people like this
Posted by dsp
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 10, 2017 at 11:10 am

I'm very supportive of technology in schools, it’s a useful learning tool and prepares students for what they will face in the workplace. When my child attended JLS and Gunn, I encouraged use of our home computer for school work. It is such a privilege for students to be able to use school provided Chromebooks and take them home. I hope students in the Palo Alto district (and their parents) recognize just how lucky they are. To the extent parents had existing restrictions on use of the internet, computers, tablets, phone, etc. in their households, those same rules should apply to the Chromebook. If parents banned all such usage at home, they need to step up and monitor their child’s usage of the Chromebook while at home to ensure it’s used for school purposes only. When the statement is made, "It should also not be up to the district to decide who gets to win in a parent-child interaction." Well of course not! The district listened to the parents who in this case decided. I think deploying parental controls, allows parents to parent in the way they see fit. Privacy concerns? This is good preparation for students when they enter the workforce, where your employer will tell you the use of the company provided laptop, phone, and tablet comes with no expectation of personal privacy.

7 people like this
Posted by retired guy who follows the schools
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 10, 2017 at 1:10 pm

First glimmer of hope for these kids that I've seen in years!--that they've still got some spine to resist all the Chinooking and Sikorskying.

Go, young Titans!

The whole antiquated notion of "trust" between parents and teenagers long ago crashed and burned with the coming of all kinds of surveillance: GPS on phones, techno-monitoring added to the family car, bar-code scanning for school attendance (complete with increased detention, at Gunn), Schoology tracking for homework, 300% more grade reporting.

Who the heck has time to build something as tender and rewarding as "trust" anymore?!

I'm glad the kids are fighting back and would like to be (OMG!) "trusted" for once! I'm with Shannon Yang and Eli Tannenwald on this, and am proud the kids haven't been thrashed into total submission by all the GPAs and SATs and APs and resumes and college admissions and parents editing their essays for them.

[Portion removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Fed up Jordan parent
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Feb 10, 2017 at 1:46 pm

I've just heard a rumor that the district may not continue the 1:1 program at Jordan next year. The kids have had them for 5 months. It was supposed to be a year long trial and they've already decided to discontinue the program? Can anyone confirm?

Hey Weekly - here's your story. Why is the district wasting money on equipment and training and not following through on a proper pilot?!

5 people like this
Posted by Lincoln
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 10, 2017 at 3:29 pm

I second dsp's comment that the students should recognize that there's little or no personal privacy on the internet--even on "personal" computers, let alone school-issued ones. As for those who say let the students and parents work it out, fine--let them work it out. The parents are not going to be forced to use the Securly report. They can look at it as little or much as they like.

4 people like this
Posted by Agree with students
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 10, 2017 at 8:38 pm

I'm glad the students are speaking out about this new policy. It seems misguided to subject high school students to this unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Like this comment
Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 11, 2017 at 2:44 pm

Children are not in charge - period! Thank you PAUSD for taking a stand! Parnets need to parent, Schools teach, and students learn from us. Palo Alto's teens have been in charge of thier elders around here for far to long! It's about time that the very economy that supports this town takes responsibility for use and over use of technology. Watch the documentary "Screenagers" or read article by Sherry Turkle.

There should be strict access rules in regards to these learning tools! The jury is still out on how damaaging screen time is for the young brain. Let's role model computer time and content limits. It took 25 years for American Journal of Medicine and the AMA to adopt safe viewing limits for children. I hope it doesn't take that long for them to issue strickter guidlines on screen and Internet use for the child and yes, us adults. There is something quite frightening to always "be on" a live stream called the internet!

Like this comment
Posted by Supply & Demand
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 12, 2017 at 10:38 am

As parents of Gunn graduates, this is very smart way to monitoring before their adulthood.

Parents always worry the whereabout of their kids. Palo Alto traffic is lousy with train crossings, busy El Camino Real etc. There are also lots of transients in the school zones. parents need to be vigilant!

2 people like this
Posted by Skelly is still laughing
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 13, 2017 at 8:05 pm

You are children. Your parents may be of wealth, power, or prestige, but your brains are of children. The adults will supervise you, and you will understand this in about 20 years.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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