Jamie Manolev

Vast amounts of data about our children are being harvested and stored via apps used by schools

Electronic data is increasingly being collected in our schools without people being fully aware of what is happening.

We should be concerned about the amount of data being collected via apps and commercial software used by schools and teachers for varying reasons. We need to ask questions such as:

  • How is that data being stored and used?
  • How might the data be used in the future, particularly sensitive data about the behaviour of children?

We also need to ask about data being collected on teachers and schools.

  • Is the collection of data on individual students in fact allowing data to be collected on teachers and schools?
  • How might that electronic collation of data be used in the future?

Potential misuse and consequences for children

Recent times have brought issues about data and privacy to the public eye. A number of ‘data controversies’, including breaches from global giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon, as well as a security slipup from the huge education platform Schoolzilla, that exposed test scores of up to 1.3 million students. These issues reveal the risks of collecting human data and its potential misuse by the companies that store and use it.

A recent report published by the UK Children’s Commissioner also highlights the potential consequences for children. It reported that,

‘we do not fully understand yet what all the implications of this is going to be when they are adults. Sensitive information about a child could find its way into their data profile and used to make highly significant decisions about them, e.g. whether they are offered a job, insurance or credit’.

Many companies already use psychological profiling data to make decisions about who they employ. In the future they might find it valuable to view a behaviour profile developed through schooling to help assess an employee’s suitability.

An example: ClassDojo is accumulating sensitive data profiles on students, teachers and schools

ClassDojo is an extremely popular classroom management app designed to help teachers with school discipline and communication. What isn’t clear to many is its voracious appetite for student data or what happens to that data. Also, it’s not clear that data on teachers and schools is being collected.

New research examining ClassDojo is raising concerns about how student data about behaviour may be collected, accumulated and then used.

Much like the traditional behaviour chart ClassDojo is designed to give feedback to students about their behaviour. Students are awarded positive and negative points to reinforce or discourage particular pre-selected behaviours.

However, unlike traditional behaviour charts, ClassDojo creates a long-lasting record of the data it collects. With the ease of generating a behavioural report with the click of a button, it makes creating a permanent electronic or printed behaviour record simple for busy teachers.

As teachers monitor student behaviour by keeping electronic records, they are also creating a data set on their own behaviour over time. Collectively such student and teacher data records could be compiled for a school.

What data does ClassDojo collect?

Student behaviour in the classroom

The data gathered by ClassDojo to shape student behaviour includes:

  • behaviour performed (default behaviours are psychological character traits i.e. grit)
  • how many times a particular behaviour has been performed
  • the date when the behaviour feedback was awarded
  • the point value that comes with the behaviour
  • who gave the feedback
  • how many ‘positive’ points a student has
  • how many ‘needs work’ points a student has, and
  • a calculated percentage score representing the per cent of positive points compared to total points received.

All this data is compiled and analysed to create behaviour reports about individual students and the whole class. Reports contain red and green colour coded donut charts showing a comparison between the ‘positive’ versus ‘needs work’ behaviours. They also provide numbered statistics based on the data mentioned above, the main one being a percentage score referred to in the above list designed to represent the behaviour quality of a student or class.

The big problem with ClassDojo reports on students

A major problem with creating reports like this is that they only judge students on a small number of behaviours that ‘count’. They ignore, and even deter, diversity. For example, teachers have to identify behaviours they want students to exhibit so they can monitor them using ClassDojo. Default options include working hard, on-task, and displaying grit. This list has to be limited to a number of behaviours that is manageable by the teacher to track. The selected behaviours end up being the ones that count, others are ignored, thus promoting conformity.

Resembling a psychometric report, there is a concern that these ClassDojo reports may be collected by schools to create student behaviour profiles that follow students throughout their schooling.

Such reports could be used to make highly significant decisions about students, e.g. whether their ‘character’ profile is suitable for leadership roles, or whether they should take certain subjects.

Ultimately there is the potential that profiling in this way could influence decisions that limit or enhance future educational opportunities. We know from decades of research on the power of teacher expectations that this is an important consideration.

The vast amount of data collected by the company is a concern for all caught in the net

ClassDojo also collects a vast amount of personal data about its users including students, teachers, parents and school leaders. This data includes

  • First and last names
  • Student usernames
  • Passwords
  • Students’ age
  • School names
  • School addresses
  • Photographs, videos, documents, drawings, or audio files
  • Student class attendance data
  • Feedback points
  • IP addresses
  • Browser details
  • Clicks
  • Referring URL’s
  • Time spent on site
  • Page views
  • Teacher parent messages

Moreover, ClassDoJo says it ‘may also obtain information, including personal information, from third-party sources to update or supplement the information you provided or we collected automatically’.

The ClassDojo messaging function

ClassDojo’s also has a messaging function.  The company describes its ClassDojo’s messaging function as a ‘safe way for a teacher and a parent to privately communicate’ but this messaging function raises further concerns for us about data privacy and profiling. ClassDojo Messaging enables teachers to send text, photos, stickers, or voice notes to parents who can respond using text.

To add to our concerns over the messaging function is ClassDojo states ‘The content of all messages (including photos, stickers and voice notes) are stored. [and] … cannot be deleted by either the teacher or the parent.’

It remains unclear just how private such communication really is. While ClassDojo says it does not read these messages, it declares that school ‘district administrators can request [access to] messaging histories (plus Class/School/Student Story posts) by emailing [the company].

How safe is all of this?

So where does all this data collected by ClassDojo go?

Two of the third party service providers involved are Amazon Web Services and MLab. They are companies used by ClassDojo to store data about its users. Amazon Web Services has a less than ideal record of keeping data stored on its servers secure. Data breaches within Amazon Web Services have exposed sensitive information about thousands of GoDaddy and Accenture customers.

Because ClassDojo stores the data it collects outside of Australia, it is not subject to Australian Privacy Law. A point of difference being that US law states that companies can be forced to hand over hosted data to the government, and to do so secretly.

It’s time to take stock of the electronic data that is being collected in schools

So whilst apps like ClassDojo might be easy to use and friendly, schools need to carefully consider the potential consequences.

Too much sensitive data is being collected about our students and we need to stop and critically reflect on what is happening in schools.

We also need to be aware that by collecting data on students we are also creating data sets on teachers and schools. We do not know how such data sets could be used in the future.

For those interested in our research:  Jamie Manolev, Anna Sullivan & Roger Slee (2019) The datafication of discipline: ClassDojo, surveillance and a performative classroom culture, Learning, Media and Technology

Jamie Manolev currently studies and works at the School of Education, University of South Australia. Jamie does research in School Discipline, Digital Technologies and Primary Education. His current PhD research is investigating ClassDojo as a school discipline system. Jamie also works on the ‘School Exclusions Study’ and as a Research Assistant on the ARC Linkage funded ‘Refugee Student Resilience Study’.

Dr Anna Sullivan is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of South Australia. A/Professor Anna Sullivan is a leading expert in the fields of teachers’ work and school discipline. She is committed to investigating ways in which schools can be better places. She has extensive teaching experience having taught in Australia and England and across all levels of schooling. A/Professor Sullivan has been a chief investigator on numerous Australian Research Council Linkage grants.

Roger Slee is Professor of Inclusive Education at the University of South Australia. He is the former Deputy Director-General of Queensland Department of Education, Founding Editor of the International Journal of Inclusive Education and Journal of Disability Studies in Education, and held the Chair of Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education University of London.