Thursday, March 12, 2009

Skyward Family Access: Is Big Brother watching?

Our school district uses Skyward Family and Student Access, a student information software program that tracks grades, attendance, assignments, schedules and, if so desired, purchases from the school Food Service. Teachers record information, and students and registered family members can log on any time.

Leaving aside the food services issue ("What did you have for lunch? A sub sandwich and a salad. Busted, you had fries and a ring-ding"), there are clearly plusses to this system. Parents can monitor homework and grades before there is a serious problem, a lifesaver especially for students with ADHD.

But, it's that little feature called Login History that puts me on edge. Jacob is a high school sophomore, and I learned through chatting with one of his teachers that some parents check their kid's grades several times a day, to monitor their GPA. To me, that's over the top. But it's what I heard next that made my blood go cold: "And then we have the parents who say they check their kids progress on Skyward Family Access twice a week, but when we look at their Login History we can tell that they have only checked three times all year."

Wow, I thought, when I realized this. I better put "check Jacob's grades" on my regular to do list. I don't want to seem like an uninvolved parent. But, it's not so simple as a quick log in and log out. Login History records not only when a person logged in, but also their IP Address and Information Viewed. So, if a parent logs in and just checked Food Service to see what their kid ate for lunch but did not view their grades, that is duly noted.

Despite discovering that my Skyward activity can be analyzed, my commitment to frequent and thorough logins has not stuck. This is mainly because Jacob keeps me up to date with little prompting. He regularly checks his grades; in fact it borders on obsession, stats nut that he is. I do check now and then to see what he is up to, but I haven't joined the Grade Police. Besides, the district still (for now?) mails out progress reports.

Thanks to Skyward, parents can truly monitor their children's education; students can forget trying to intercept progress reports in the mail. So much for white-out and the time honored trick of transforming a "D" to a "B". And yet....the sociologist in me is uneasy. For one thing, parents who are not computer-savvy, lack access to the Internet, and/or have limited English are at a disadvantage. I'm guessing that it some of these parents who need feedback the most.

Also, these educational data systems are part of a larger data capturing revolution that gives me pause. I am currently reading a fascinating book, The Numberati by Stephen Baker. Baker explores how all of our on-line actions are monitored, aggregated and analyzed by the likes of marketers, employers, political operatives, and the health insurance industry.

Through metrics and statistical modeling, institutions can gather and analyze every stroke we take on our computer, as well as some of our off-line behavior. If marketers can predict our purchases based on our Netflix queue, what can school districts - and potentially colleges, universities or the ROTC - find out about our students through our activities on programs such as Skyward Access?

And all this quantification, of course, does not take into account soft intangibles, nuances, the human element. Do I not check Skyward very often because I am indifferent or because I have good communication with my son and his teachers? As for Dad Y down the block who checks daily - how can numbers say if he does so because he wants his daughter to get into Stanford or because she spends her waking hours locked in her room and won't tell her folks about her school life?

In the end, I think we should be grateful for computer-based tools that provide information to abet our parenting. But at the same time, we should be cautious and maybe nervous. Am I being paranoid? What do you think?


Shea's Mom said...

Wow, I am with you. I find this sort of creepy.

And, can savvy teen computer heads hack into the system to change their grades?

Who knows?

Carol said...

That's a REALLY good questions. I have heard stories of college kids hacking into their professors' computers. I imagine they have some safeguards built in, but these kids are pretty crafty!!

Pam said...

Hello, you may call me weird but I just don't bother to check out our 17 year old daughters grades on the computer. She will be an adult someday soon and have to monitor her own work or lack thereof. And so much learning cannot be measured well with numbers, such as social skills. And yes, Carol, I believe your fears are quite valid. Pam