Former secondary teacher Chris Zomer says commercial platforms designed to harvest data on students on-task behaviours, participation and attention span are inherently problematic and raise questions over the extent to which they may actually infringe on student’s digital rights.

More to the point, is this kind of data valuable or indeed necessary? Zomer indicates the jury is out on this front. 

Narrowing engagement 

The research fellow from Deakin University is also concerned that tech companies are assuming greater control over how teachers understand what engagement in the classroom looks like. 

With their focus on functionality and efficiency, more complex and nuanced notions of engagement go by the wayside when these tools are used, Zomer says. 

“I’m a little worried that perceptions of engagement are narrowed down to what can be measured with numbers, excluding other definitions of engagement that are more current in educational research, which have more to do with motivation and ideas of belonging,” he tells EducationHQ.

The long-term risk is that typical measurements used by social media giants and other online platforms to quantify audience engagement, such as page views or likes, will start to seep into education, Zomer flags. 

He says it’s not clear why teachers need to gather information on things like students’ page views or the number of times children have logged in to a certain platform. 

“From a teacher’s perspective, it might be useful to know if a student has not been active at all on the platform. But it could be argued knowing a student has logged in on Friday evening at 9.32pm is unnecessary surveillance,” he shared in a recent article.

Accuracy under question

Often student engagement data is not accurate either, and students can learn to game the system, the expert notes. 

“It depends on what [the platform is] measuring. So, for instance, many measure the time students spend on the platform or being ‘active’. 

“But that’s not particularly accurate, because they cannot actually measure if … for instance, students have a task window open.

“The time they are locked into a platform doesn’t actually mean that they’re actively [working],” Zomer says. 

And while the quantity of learning might be measured, there’s no assessment of its quality, he points out. 

For example, Epic, a popular library application used in many primary schools, is designed to track the number of books read by students and how long they have spent reading. 

But there’s really no way of knowing for sure its data is correct, Zomer says. 

“I mean, you can assume they have if they’ve clicked through all the pages, but you cannot be sure, right? So the data is not 100 per cent valid in every case.” 

Teacher-student trust at risk

The researcher also has concerns about how engagement data is changing the nature of student-teacher relationships. 

The extensive monitoring and reporting of children – in ways that are far more invasive than we have seen before – alters the whole dynamic of the learning experience, the expert suggests. 

He says this could breed distrust between students and teachers, largely because students are not aware of how and when they are being monitored. 

“And then that data might be shared with parents during parent-teacher interviews. 

“So, instead of engaging students in their own engagement, you’re kind of going behind their backs, really.” 

As a secondary French teacher, Zomer was encouraged by leadership to use student engagement data in his own parent-teacher interviews. 

He says if a parent was upset about their child’s results, simply showing them how little time they had spent engaged in online learning was deemed an easy way of deflecting any criticism and placing the blame squarely on the student. 

But this blocked any deeper discussion about why the student might be not be motivated or making progress in their learning, he flagged.  

Then there’s the issue of just how ethical this kind of data collection is. 

He notes the United Nations states that "[any] digital surveillance of children, together with any associated automated processing of personal data, should respect the child’s right to privacy and should not be conducted routinely, indiscriminately or without the child’s knowledge”.

And yet many students are not aware that their engagement is being tracked, let alone provided explicit consent for the collection and storage of this data, Zomer says. 

Another consideration is that student engagement data is often presented only on the teacher-facing parts of platforms, leaving students effectively in the dark, the expert says. 

“When I was teaching myself, I often just said, ‘I can see what you’re doing, right?’. Some students were surprised and some were not. 

“I think students should be aware of what data is being collected about them, and how this works.”

How far should we go to measure engagement? 

The live monitoring of students – a function offered by Education Perfect, for example – creates an omnipresent surveillance scene that has questionable benefit for their learning, Zomer explains. 

These platforms also establish a student ranking of sorts that feeds into the idea that we constantly have to compare their ‘output’, the expert says. 

“I guess a lot of platforms do the same thing. So, it’s not necessarily that Education Perfect is the only one doing it, but they rank students based on their output, so they rank students based on the number of activities they’ve completed, the number of time spent on the activities.

 “It becomes kind of a contest in who has been more active.” 

Student engagement data that draws on biometrics (eye-tracking and brainwave activity, for example) is another notch up on the invasiveness scale, Zomer warns.

This poses a particular problem for cohorts of marginalised students for whom engagement is assumed to be more of an issue, and who are “already sensible to surveillance”, he says. 

“It surprises me [that one US researcher] still recommends these technologies as a diagnostic tool to re-engage disengaged students or to test the effectiveness of a specific learning technology…  

“The perceived need to use new engagement tracking technologies in lower SES schools will be greater than in private girls’ schools where students are considered to be more ‘academic’.”

Do we really want teachers to keep track of students’ eye movements and brain activity at all times? Zomer queries. 

“We have to ask ourselves that question, if that’s what we want, and if it’s really necessary at all.”