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For some it’s on the cutting edge of what’s cool about school, for others, it signals the slippery slope of Orwellian-style classroom surveillance. One thing is for sure, though, the use of behaviour management software, like ClassDojo— a controversial app that has taken schools in the United States, and now Canada, by storm—has sparked a fiery debate about best practices in the exploding field of classroom tech.
I was introduced to the software this past September, where it was being used in my son’s 2nd grade class. Full disclosure: I am not a fan.
Every student has a customizable Avatar. A virtual classroom of animated creatures, each with its corresponding points tally, is displayed on the digital smart board in front of the class. Unlike its primitive predecessors, ClassDojo gives parents unprecedented access to an online dashboard—a real-time play-by-play of a child’s day.
In this brave new world Little Johnny no longer has to trudge home, trying to figure out how to tell ma’ he’s had a bad day, ‘cause ma’s waiting at the door with his behavior report in hand.
I dutifully responded to the memo on ClassDojo letterhead that came home in my son’s backpack. It told me to sign up to receive “messages and important updates.” I soon discovered that an electronic profile for my son had already been set up, without my permission. That was problem No. 1.
In an October interview for the Ottawa Citizen, Brian Beamish, Canada’s privacy commissioner, said ClassDojo “Should be setting off alarm bells” and that, as a parent, he “wouldn’t go into this with eyes closed” and I couldn’t agree with him more.
As a behaviour management tool, ClassDojo is so much more intense than the low-tech alternatives of the past, and then there’s the online component. If it’s going to be used at all, parents should be asked for consent.
Problem No. 2 was that my son had a negative points’ balance that followed him from one day to the next. Sadly, the old-fashioned notion of a clean slate didn’t migrate to the ClassDojo architecture. Multiple incidents of “talking out of turn” and using a “loud voice” had, in spite of being “on task” a couple of times, left him in the red.
I weighed both the real and symbolic value of my kid having had to work his way back to being a zero and decided I’d seen all I needed to see—he was removed from the system.
In a November interview for the New York Times, Sam Chaudhary, co-founder of ClassDojo, admitted that “Kids are being judged at school every day” but “on a narrow set of things.” Of his software’s capacity to “broaden that set” Chaudhary said, “It’s a good thing.”
Some would argue that judgment, subjective as it is, has never been time well spent in education and that just because technology means we can put kids under an electronic microscope, it doesn’t mean we should.
Problem No. 3 was the classroom display feature—which some teachers choose to turn off, apparently, although there seems to be no rhyme or reason to this. It’s evidence to me that at least some educators don’t support the high visibility of the scoring system. Perhaps they sense it feeds peer comparison and public-shaming—while fostering an undue preoccupation with extrinsic motivation—and question whether that contributes to a healthy, productive learning environment.
Problem No. 4 was that no senior administrator at the school or at the Board of Education could answer my questions, the simplest of which was, “Who will evaluate this student evaluation?” In other words: How will you know if educators are “on” or “off” task in wielding such a powerful technology?
I have since learned that there are few policies or guidelines to prevent Silicon Valley’s latest offerings—be they haute cuisine or dog food—from making their way into schools. Many Boards aren’t tracking who’s using what, relying instead on teacher’s choice, which is fine, if that choice is a proven learning technology.
But the lack of senior administrative oversight for unproven behaviour modification technology is alarming and represents a major gap in the education system that must be addressed before technology like this is broadly deployed.
Problem No. 5 is that, customizable Avatars notwithstanding, this is a blatant cash grab. The app. is free, for now, but according to the NYT ClassDojo “plans to generate revenue by marketing additional services, like more detailed behavior analyses, to parents.”
In short: Teachers jump on the bandwagon, bring the surveillance-loving Helicopter parents to the trough with their wallets in hand, and millions of dollars are made while kids are lab rats in this latest, greatest, social experiment.
For my part I’m left asking lots of questions and waiting for at least some good answers.
Do teachers have the authority to sign students up for online surveillance without a parent’s permission? Is Class Dojo, or similar software, truly an innovation or merely a 21st century iteration of antiquated teaching methods that ought to have been done away with a long time ago?
Most of all: Where is the evidence-based rigor and evaluation? For now, or so it seems, the microscope of judgment is for kids only.