When Julie Garlen started as an elementary school teacher in Georgia in the early 2000s, she ran her classroom pretty much the same way teachers had for generations. That included her approach to discipline. It was up to her, and her alone, to keep one eye on the whiteboard and the other on the students’ behavior. When she noticed someone acting up, she had to assess the situation, based on her personal and intimate knowledge of each child, and correct the student accordingly.
In 2007, Garlen moved on to Georgia Southern University, where she became a professor of early childhood education. Part of her new role was to observe and evaluate student teachers in the field. Around 2015, Garlen noticed a new presence in some of the classrooms she was visiting. More and more schools were using a surveillance technology, and it was turning the children into little monsters.
That was precisely the idea. The classrooms were using an increasingly-popular program called ClassDojo — a digital communication and behavior management system that assigns each student a cartoon monster and uses that avatar as a stand-in for public praise and public shaming. Teachers reward or punish behavior by adding points to, or subtracting them from, each monster. They can display student standings to the entire class in a projection from a laptop or phone. And unlike old-school gold star and demerit systems, this tech enables teachers to record and photograph an individual student’s behavior and share all the data with their parents, who could watch from home in real time.
“I was alarmed,” says Garlen. “I struggled with it. I see all children as human beings, and the level of control made me uncomfortable. And it seemed like schools were adopting this tech without any sort of vetting or conversation around whether this was something we should be introducing to the classroom.”
By the time Garlen left Georgia Southern in 2018 for her current job as associate professor of childhood and youth studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, some sort of surveillance software was present in almost every classroom she visited. Today, ClassDojo alone claims that at least one teacher is using it in 95 percent of all K-8 schools in the U.S. and in 180 countries. The company also says that 1 in 6 U.S. families with a child under age 14 use the program every day. Similar classroom management programs, like Kickboard and LiveSchool, have popped up as well.
The popularity of such programs leaves little doubt that they are filling a need in the marketplace. And while ClassDojo and several of their competitors did not respond to inquiries for this story, ClassDojo has a surfeit of defenders online. In blogs and testimonials, teachers, many of whom are likely under-resourced, rave about the convenience of having a free app on their phones that incentivizes good behavior in their students, frees them from being hall monitors, and gives them more time to actually teach and nurture young minds. Likewise, parents laud the access and intensified connection to their child’s performance at school.
“That feeling that students are being constantly watched and monitored, that implied mistrust — I’m concerned what damage that is doing to the student-teacher relationship.”Catlin Tucker, a teaching coach and former high-school English teacher
“Instead of just wracking my brain at the end of the quarter and assigning students a letter grade based on my perception of the student’s participation, I have data,” wrote Rachel Medeiros, an instructional designer and blogger who spent eight years as a middle school teacher. “I know how often they raise their hand and participate. I know how often they read with great expression. I know how often they’ve been a great team player. And I even know the not-so-pretty stuff, like when they interrupt me or come to class unprepared.”
But along with the rise in the software’s use has come growing concern by educators and researchers like Garlen about the ethical questions — from privacy concerns to racial and socioeconomic implications — of keeping digital tabs on our children.
Aside from hackers, programs like ClassDojo work a lot like social media networks within the school, making volumes of personal behavioral data readily accessible to other teachers, counselors, and administrators.
But perhaps the deeper concern is the student’s sense of personal privacy. As mentioned before, teachers can project the ranking-style interface on the wall in front of the entire class. When Tommy is working well with his classmates, his teacher can instantly add two points for teamwork on the big board; but if Chris is unprepared for a lesson, or Kim talks out of turn, they can watch in embarrassment as everyone in the room sees the points docked from their score. Some form of this practice existed in the analog days of poster-board charts, gold stars, and demerits, but the software makes it instantaneous and impersonal.
In addition, the app’s portability on phones and laptops enables the teacher to expand the program into the cafeteria for lunch, onto the playground for recess, and aboard the bus for a field trip. And all of this is being broadcast home, where any helicopter parent can provide an additional eye in the sky. Critics say the result is a sort of all-encompassing Orwellian surveillance state where it feels like someone is always watching.
“What message is this sending?” says Catlin Tucker, a former high-school English teacher who has a doctorate in learning technologies. Now a best-selling author, she coaches K-12 teachers about blended learning, which involves both online and in-person education. “Learning should be a partnership. That feeling that students are being constantly watched and monitored, that implied mistrust — I’m concerned what damage that is doing to the student-teacher relationship.”
Beyond anecdotes and observation, independent research into the sociological and psychological impacts of this Big Brother software is scarce. In 2018, researchers from the University of South Australia published a paper in the journal Learning, Media, and Technology, concluding that ClassDojo reinforces systems of “coercive compliance” rather than actually teaching students the difference between good and bad behavior.
“Students are disempowered,” says James Manolev, a co-author of the paper. “These levels of surveillance undermine the very things teachers are trying to develop — participation, critical thinking, creativity, inclusiveness, and a sense of fairness. It suppresses risk-taking. It works against the whole purpose of education.”
Then there’s the question of the playing field itself. Education researchers and sociologists have long argued and illustrated that children of color are already disproportionately punished for the same behaviors as whites. For instance, the Civil Rights Data Collection survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, found that while Black students constituted 16 percent of the country’s public-school enrollment, they received 42 percent of multiple suspensions. Black students were three times more likely than white children to be suspended or expelled. If these classroom surveillance technologies are based on biased discipline practices, it could perpetuate the double standard.
“Anytime you have a developmental model based on behavioral norms, they’ll be based on white, middle-class norms,” says Garlen. “They’ll automatically be biased against students who don’t have those typical behaviors. It’s alarming for students that fall outside of that norm.”
That’s not just an American phenomenon. “We know that all surveillance in the educational setting — not just ClassDojo — is disproportionately applied to disadvantaged students,” says Manolev. “Here in Australia, it’s disproportionately applied to our Indigenous communities. It targets racial groups and those with disabilities.”
And of course, anytime you bring technology into the conversation, there’s the further discrimination against parents and families who can’t afford to keep up. While many predominantly white and middle-to-upper-class families have the resources to keep constant tabs on their children’s behavior, many poorer people don’t work from home, don’t have broadband or smartphones, and simply don’t have the time to be remotely disciplining their child during the school day.
The widespread adoption of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the emphasis on technology in the classroom. With teachers and parents scrambling to meet students’ needs, any app or device that can relieve even an ounce of the burden will be welcome — and that’s not likely to change even after the pandemic has passed.
Though Tucker is skeptical of these surveillance programs, she says that when her son’s teacher employed ClassDojo, she appreciated the new avenue of communication. Tucker supports the implementation of technology; she just wonders if teachers are using the tech in a positive way.
“I’d love to see tech used to support students in becoming more aware of their behavior instead of just losing points,” says Tucker. “Work to improve students’ self-regulation skills instead of using an external punishment-reward system that, frankly, a lot of kids might not feel invested in.”