I Monitor My Students With a Chrome App — and It’s Made a Huge Difference

All virtual classroom monitoring apps are not created equal

Photo: Adam Kaz/Getty Images

I can see everything that my students do on their Google Chrome browsers.

At first, it felt extremely intrusive. When I first read 1984, I never imagined I would be Big Brother, but now I’ve decided to use an app called GoGuardian: It lets me block sites, open and close tabs, and monitor anything that’s happening on my 9th grade students’ Chrome browsers.

It’s not all dystopic, of course. GoGuardian does serve as an excellent instructional tool, the same way screen sharing helps tech support diagnose certain problems. When a student has trouble with their login information, I can see what they typed wrong. When a student doesn’t know where to find an app we need on a given day, I can say “Achieve 3000 is on the second row and second column of your screen, on the left side.”

GoGuardian logo
GoGuardian logo
Image: GoGuardian/CC BY-SA 4.0

I speak as a special ed teacher, but I’ve also been on the other side of the camera as a student. Recently I had to use the app ProctorU to take exams for my certification. While taking a test, I had a proctor watching me with a camera the whole time. I had to show the whole room to make sure I had no cheating materials, had to make sure my phone was out of reach, and had to show my arms to make sure I had no watch or material written on my arms. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has expressed concern about proctoring apps like ProctorU, and as a teacher, I completely agree that video monitoring is too invasive for K-12 students. But GoGuardian seems to be the app that stays on the safe side of the line between monitoring and surveillance.

As an instructional tool, GoGuardian is like magic. I separate my career as an educator during virtual learning into two eras — before GoGuardian and after GoGuardian. It is a game changer that allows me to keep all students on track and open tabs when they’re confused, and close tabs when they’re distracted. I’ve been able to engage students in ways I hadn’t been able to before I started using GoGuardian, which is especially important given the increased focus on virtual teaching. I can chat with my students on their Chrome browsers to tell them how to open a necessary app. I’ve taught students how to log into Zoom or how to open an assignment through GoGuardian, and I’ve been able to open tabs for my students who are struggling to keep up or lost.

When GoGuardian launched in 2014, it was only for Chromebooks and exclusively allowed administrators to monitor student activity. However, GoGuardian expanded to teachers in September 2015. In January 2016, the app was integrated with Google Classroom, which most teachers use as their virtual classroom. In 2016, the co-founders of GoGuardian, Advait Shinde and Aza Steel, made Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In October 2015, GoGuardian came under fire from the ACLU for enabling remote webcam monitoring and keylogging. In response, the company updated its product to disable these features. It’s easy to go overboard on the 1984 metaphors, but where I work, teachers only use GoGuardian on school computers. Students who use their personal computers can do whatever they want. I can’t see the screens of students who don’t use school Chromebooks and computers, so to some degree, those students are at an educational disadvantage in the virtual setting. (Those who are inclined to prize absolute privacy above all else might also say that kids who are privileged enough to own their computers get the advantage of avoiding surveillance.)

There is the potential for the tool to be abused, though, at the end of the day, it depends on the teacher. I don’t use GoGuardian to monitor a student’s activities outside school hours, although a teacher could easily do so. And if a student is on task, engaged, and doing their work even with some distractions, I let them be. However, if a student is on YouTube and not showing up to class, I will close tabs and call home. And I will always remember how enraged one student got when I closed out her tabs of Roblox and called her grandmother for her to come to virtual class.

I don’t see anything wrong with GoGuardian, since it only applies to school computers and school property. Also, it doesn’t monitor the whole computer, but rather a Google Chrome browser linked to their school accounts. A school is an educational institution, so students are expected to use GoGuardian for educational use, much like how everyone with a work computer is only expected to use their work computers for work.

There are other advantages to the software. In 2016, Anya Kamenetz at NPR reported on schools using GoGuardian to alert teachers and administrators when a student showed signs of severe emotional distress. Ken Yeh, the director of technology at Ontario Christian Schools, found that one student searched for suicide and other related terms. The student also looked for specific methods of self-harm, and Yeh alerted the principals and guidance counselor to see if they could follow up on what was going on.

The student was brought to the guidance counselor, and positive interventions were implemented. That happened three separate times after the school implemented GoGuardian. Rodney Griffin, the Chromebook coordinator for a school district in southwest Missouri, says it happens an average of once a semester.

Still, some argue that GoGuardian is an invasion of student privacy. Having school IT directors as eavesdroppers is inherently problematic, according to Elana Zeide, a research fellow at NYU’s Information Law Institution.

“Student safety and saving lives is obviously important, and I don’t want to discount that. But I also think there’s a real possibility that this well-meaning attempt to protect students from themselves will result in overreach,” Zeide told NPR in that same article.

Zeide points out that people searching “suicide” could be looking up Socrates or Sylvia Plath, and that low-income students may be disproportionately subject to surveillance, where school-owned devices are more likely the only way students have access to the internet. She worries that students will be acclimated to constant monitoring as a part of the normal state of everyday life. And when some students, especially women and young people, think they’re being monitored, Jonathon W. Penney at Slate says they’re more likely to self-censor.

There have certainly been some hiccups since the pandemic started, too. In the Clark County School District in Nevada, some parents complained about GoGuardian being “spyware.” In one instance in the Chicago Public Schools system, teachers could use GoGuardian to get access to tens of thousands of students’ computer cameras and microphones by initiating sessions via Google Meet. The preview would show a live video inside a student’s home taken through the webcam, and the student didn’t have to agree to the meeting taking place. In response to the privacy infraction, Chicago Public Schools updated its settings to have students manually turn on cameras and mics on Google Meet. A GoGuardian spokesman told the Chicago Sun-Times the problem was with Google Meet automatically enabling microphones and cameras.

Most teachers in the Chicago Public School system expressed they had no desire to spy on students — they just wanted to make sure students were doing their work. I agree. GoGuardian is an instructional tool, not a surveillance tool, and any use otherwise has no place in virtual learning. For bad actors who might think differently, the capacity of GoGuardian is limited to a Chrome browser synced to a student’s school account, so the jurisdiction of GoGuardian is limited. Plus, administrators have power over when GoGuardian can be used — I personally am not allowed to use it on weekends. A student’s personal Google account can’t be monitored with GoGuardian if it is not linked to instruction on Google Classroom, so the monitoring is easy to bypass for personal activities.

With the Covid-19 pandemic infecting and killing more Americans than ever, it seems, unfortunately, like virtual learning is not going away any time soon. Until it does, I’m happy to have such a useful tool at my disposal — one that makes a positive difference in the education of my special needs students.

Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of “The Wire.” Email: ryanfan17@gmail.com. Support me: ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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