Lynn MatskoA lawsuit in Pennsylvania over a school district’s remote monitoring of student laptops shows there is a price to pay for digital learning — and not just the initial price of a MacBook. There are ongoing maintenance and theft costs, and, as this case shows, there can be costs in trust and community relations. And lawyers.

The Lower Merion School District has a policy of providing all students with laptop computers and has bought 2,620 of them over the last two years at a cost of $1000 each. They come with webcams installed, and the district’s technology department has used tracking software in the webcams to locate 42 laptops reported lost or stolen during the current school year.

Couldn’t they see this is an invasion of privacy, even if the person was guilty of theft? Did they really not think of what images might be captured in students’ homes or other locations, and how damaging that could be to the dignity of individuals and trust between them and the school?

The lawsuit against Lower Merion was instigated by the complaint of 15-year-old Blake Robbins, a student at the district’s Harriton School, that the school spied on him at home. His family claims that he was confronted by an assistant principal, Lindy Matsko, about using drugs when, his lawyers assert, he was eating candies.

Mrs Matsko, who has two 15-year-old sons, has hotly denied in court this week that she ever monitored a student via a laptop webcam or ever authorised such a thing. Robbins says that “someone accessed my webcam and provided Ms Matsko with a screenshot and a webcam picture of me alone in my bedroom.”

His sister told a radio station that she and all her girlfriends at Harriton were “very scared, because we don’t check to see if the lid [of the laptop] is closed when we’re changing. We take them in the bathroom when we’re in the shower to listen to music.”

What do you expect when you give a kid a free laptop?

The complaint has been filed in federal court and is no doubt being carefully watched, not only by schools. Aside from privacy issues it raises a number of questions — not least about using expensive technology with students and then trying to limit the costs by spying on suspects. Is it really worth treating all your students as potential offenders in order to train them in one learning method — assuming that it is even effective?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet