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

By Jamie Manolev and Anna Sullivan and Roger Slee

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.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

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

  1. Ruth Williams says:

    Thanks for sharing this information. I had no idea that the ClassDojo app collected data so comprehensively. I haven’t used it myself however a friend who is a primary teacher was telling me how great it is so I downloaded it with the intention of using it in the future. After reading your findings, I definitely won’t be using it.

  2. Jamie Manolev says:

    Hi Ruth,
    thanks for your comment. I am glad our research has been a catalyst for thought regarding your practice re ed-tech.

  3. Australian schools and teachers are subject to Australian privacy law. Teachers and schools have to consider where the data they require students to enter ends up. If service is “free”, then it is a safe bet that the company providing that service is selling the data to someone (otherwise how are they paying their bills?). In addition if the company is not based in Australia, you must consider where the data ends up. There are options, educators can use learning management systems hosted in Australia. These are not as user friendly looking as some apps, and will cost money, but not much compared to the cost of running a school and paying teachers,

  4. Jamie Manolev says:

    Hi Tom,
    you make some very good points. However, I wonder about the level of data & privacy literacy that exists across the teaching profession, the difficulty acquiring such literacies, as well as the apathy toward these issues by some. I think school leadership in this area will be an important factor moving forward.

  5. Jamie, if our teachers are going to use online tools for teaching, then they need to learn how to do that. That training can cover privacy issues. Dealing with apathy by school leadership is easily dealt with the same way, via their training (tied to promotion and pay, to get them to do it). Online tools should also be part of the basic education of new teachers. But I am not in business of school teaching, only higher education.

  6. Michael Uren says:

    If schools truly just want the tap-on-the-smartboard functionality of giving kids reward points (a-la ClassDojo) for good behaviour (and maybe taking them away for bad behaviour), and keeping score, that’s about a couple of weeks to write an app that just lives on the class PC to do that, without sharing kids details and long-term behavioural data to the outside world, with ClassDojo (or similar). Noting that I’m not talking about the pros and cons of behavioural rewards like this (debate that can of worms at your leisure), just that the technical ability to write something to run locally in-class is pretty straightforward, without the (yet to be fully understood) serious child privacy risks on their behavioural data, as per this article,

  7. Jamie Manolev says:

    Hi Michael,
    thank you for your comment. Your idea seems like it would provide at a minimum a reduction in student data being vacuumed up and sent overseas. Have such apps been developed for some schools in Australia?

  8. Max Edelweiss says:

    I’ve had running battles with leadership, bordering on bullying, at more than one school over this. I refuse to use it. I don’t care if the teacher I’m replacing used it, I cannot in good conscience hand that data to a completely unaccountable company. On top of that I just do not have time to mess about with an app when I could be teaching.

  9. Jamie Manolev says:

    Hi Max,
    sorry to hear of the constraints being placed on your approach to school discipline. It sounds very concerning that leadership may be acting in such a manner. You raise a very important point that relates to the broader issue of understanding what happens to student data that is generated, stored and used within, and by, Apps owned by private companies. I think this is an area requiring more attention from many schools.

  10. Max Edelweiss says:

    It really is something that needs picking apart. I am concerned that tech-led vanity is pervading leadership teams and effectively deprecating professional judgement and experience.
    In every aspect of our work we are continually deprofessionalised and it beggars belief that many teachers and leading teachers seem to want to hasten the process.

  11. Mrs Teacher says:

    Have we forgotten the vast amount of information our own education department (aka Govt) collects about our students – our future adults? Like never before in history, a vast amount of data will be known about every single individual attending public, private or independent schools. Have we thought about the potential ramifications of this or is this article merely just scare mongering about one particular app? There are many apps just like class dojo around. I’d like to know why this one in particular was the only one singled out…? Whilst this article raises some excellent points to consider, in all honesty, I’m more concerned with the psych reports, IQ reports, test results, school reports, behaviour tracking, observations, health reports etc etc stored. These things are far more sensitive in many respects.

  12. Anna Sullivan says:

    You raise some good issues and important lines of inquiry. In this research we chose to examine ClassDojo because it is one of the most popular free apps used in schools in many countries. It’s important that research examines its use. We are reporting one small part of it here. As with most research, there are limitations but it’s still important. Understanding issues related to this app will help us understand other related apps and practices.

  13. KieranF says:

    Alongside the issue of data privacy, one must also ask who it is that decides which apps to use in schools; is is a school district, a particular school administration, or just an individual teacher. I am reading about “Brand-Name Teachers” and their influence on what tech is used in classrooms and the clear conflict of interest this creates.

    Some good reading about this ; as a good starting point – the NYT “Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues” piece. To follow up, check out the National Education Policy Center paper “Examining the New Phenomenon of Teachers as Brand Ambassadors”

  14. Anna Sullivan says:

    Thanks Kieran, I found the report you suggested and it is very interesting. A huge issue that we have to grapple with as social media is growing so quickly.

  15. Jamie Manolev says:

    Hi KieranF,
    yes I think you have raised an important factor linked to the distribution of ed-tech products and their presence in schools – that of ambassadorial marketing. Thanks for the resources. I had read the NYT piece but not the Education Policy Center paper, so I will certainly looking forward to reading that one.

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