Ed-tech apps spy on kids

Cory Doctorow
5 min readMay 6, 2021
A laptop on a home desk, its screen filled with the red eye of HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When schools switched to distance learning amid the lockdown, it represented a chance to rethink education and ed-tech, from lessons to schedules to evaluation.

For the most part, we have squandered that chance, doubling down on the most destructive educational practices.

This is true across the board, not just in ed-tech. Take the bizarre start-times for classes — as early as 7AM for students enrolled in “period 0” classes. This timing has nothing to do with best practices in pedagogy or our understanding of adolescent brain-development.

Instead, it’s a least-worst option arising from the US’s unwillingness to treat high-quality child-care as a public good that benefits both kids and working parents. We open our schools at o-dark-hundred because parents need to get to work.

This, despite the fact that the majority of teens’ body-clocks shift nocturnally as they go through puberty. We know that waking kids up early hurts their learning outcomes, but we accept that tradeoff because the alternative (kids whose parents can’t earn a living) is worse.

Virtual schools represented an opportunity to shift education to more humane hours, but we blew it. And that’s the least of our failures, barely registering in comparison with the way that we failed to fix ed-tech even as it grew to eclipse all other pedagogical questions.

Exhibit A, of course, is “remote invigilation,” the spyware that we force students to install on their computers in the name of preventing cheating on the pedagogically bankrupt high-stakes tests we cling to.


These tools are force-multipliers for the destructive power of high-stakes testing: their junk-science “sentiment analysis” facial recognition algorithms can’t recognize dark-skinned faces, forcing Black kids to sit tests with multiple lamps shining directly in their eyes.

Students forced to use tools like Proctorio are expected to rotate their webcams 360 degrees to prove they’re alone in a room at home — which means that poor kids who share a room (or can only get wifi in the parking lot of a Taco Bell) are penalized for poverty.