Spector Spyware as Big Mother

As I consult with several groups, one common thread is a serious consideration of how to support 1:1 mobile learning while confidently keeping the students who are bent on pushing the boundaries from getting into too much mischief.  As the Big Mother theme highlights, schools and systems identify their philosophy of education with the stand they take on the “Clamp Down” to “Free Reign” continuum.

Essentially I am a pragmatic idealist.  I believe the foundation of a school must be based on trust and belief that given the opportunity, people – students and staff – want to do the right thing.  That’s the idealist part.  On the pragmatic side, we come from all backgrounds, personality-types and motivation levels, so the foundation of trust includes the corollary that breaking the community’s trust carries grave consequences.  With freedom comes responsibility.

Add to these points the belief that The New WWW (Whatever, Whenever, Wherever) provides a greater temptation for today’s students than previous generations ever faced.  When a mobile device enables immediate gratification or stimulation 24/7, making helpful choices needs to be a metacognitive task.  So one option I’m encouraging clients to consider is a compact with students to install Spector Spyware (or such) onto their tablets and laptops.  Not, as the Big Brother it’s designed to be, but as what you could call a “Jiminy Clicket” (or not).  Students will know that their online actions can be replayed and will be – not to catch them out, but for them to review and reflect upon.

The point isn’t to see if students ever Stumble Upon (or search) naughty bits, but to help raise their awareness that, for example, 2/3 of their time spent researching is clicking links and 1/3 skimming text.  Or that the combined time spent peeking in on YouTube is greater than the time spent writing an essay.  Maybe that real-time interruptions like MSN, chat or friends’ updates from social networks, combined with all the above, leave nothing longer than 3 minutes for focused concentration.

Thus the key is not to use spyware as a threat, but as a non-judgmental witness who records what we get up to.  When it’s all too easy  to amuse or intrigue ourselves, a little help from friends might be a useful strategy.

How are others addressing this challenge?  I’d love to hear about places taking the highroad, not battening down the network, and how they go about it.  This is especially tricky on a systemic level, beyond the culture of the classroom where students are “left to their own devices.”

Big Brother or “Big Mother?”

A few years ago Coca-Cola ran a promotion called “The Unexpected Summer.” In it a combo cellphone GPS device was rigged to look like a can of Coke and placed in over a hundred 12-packs around the country. A companion Web site allowed people to watch the blips as satellites tracked the lucky winners within 50 feet of anywhere the US.

Recently a few news items reminded me of this and the role of technology in keeping track of our whereabouts. Hitachi has developed a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) “powder.” The chip measures .05 millimeters square and 5 microns thick, about the size of a grain of sand. Another interesting development in the world of RFID was a patent taken out in February by Kodak for an edible RFID chip. Among other potential uses is for nurses to know if you’ve taken your medicine.

Less invasive might be the GPS sneakers now on sale from Isaac Daniel. The sneakers work when the wearer presses a button on the shoe to activate the GPS. In some emergencies — such as lost child or Alzheimer’s patient — a parent, spouse or guardian can call the monitoring service, and operators can activate the GPS remotely.We could add to this list the cell phone services and GPS car units designed to let parents know where their children are – out of harms way, one hopes. What will be very interesting as these technological developments continue is who monitors them and for what purpose.

In 1984, Orwell invoked a Fascist “Big Brother,” representing the power and interests of the state. In “Big Brother – the TV series,” a house and voyeuristic citizens take the role of omniscient observer of our every move. As Web 2.0 technologies converge with mobile communications, multi-nationals and corporate marketers anticipate the day when our physical location and long tail of previous purchases unite in an endless stream of opportunities to “impulse buy.”

Stopping this movement isn’t within our means. What might be – for those of us who are parents and teachers – is to advocate and champion a human side to this potential. In other words, demand educational applications that side-step Big Brother in favor of “Big Mother.”

  • We know what people surf for, but do we have an algorithm to help us match students’ learning to their interests?
  • Databases keep track of what we buy online, but can teachers access a similar tool that provides information about an individual’s knowledge, skills and attitudes?
  • Social networking sites match us up with thousands of “friends,” but can the software also help us reflect on the wisdom of our choices?