No charges in webcam spy case

Lower Merion School District employees will not face criminal charges for using webcam-equipped laptops to photograph students in their homes, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Prosecutors said criminal intent couldn’t be proved.

Lawsuits filed by two district students will proceed.

The district’s own investigation concluded that technicians used the software only to find lost or missing laptops. But its report also found that staffers often forgot to turn off the tracking system after they turned it on, letting the webcams snap tens of thousands of photos and send them to the district’s servers in the last two years.

At least 40 students were photographed through their laptops.

56,000 spycam images

The Philadelphia Inquirer has more on the investigation of the Lower Merion School District spycam case,

(School) employees activated the web cameras and tracking software on laptops they gave to high school students about 80 times in the past two school years, snapping nearly 56,000 images that included photos of students, pictures inside their homes and copies of the programs or files running on their screens, district investigators have concluded.

. . . in at least five instances, school employees let the Web cams keep clicking for days or weeks after students found their missing laptops, according to the review. Those computers – programmed to snap a photo and capture a screen shot every 15 minutes when the machine was on – fired nearly 13,000 images back to the school district servers.

Only one student was monitored for failing to pay insurance on the laptop, investigators say.  That must have been sophomore Blake Robbins, who filed suit.  In 15 cases, investigators were unable to determine why school officials turned on the spycam.

Spycam suit: Photos, e-mail show snooping

In response to a lawsuit charging school-issued laptops were used as spycams, Lower Merion School District has turned over photos showing 15-year-old Blake Robbins partially undressed and sleeping in bed, excerpts of online chats and information on web sites visited. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Back at district offices, the Robbins motion says, employees with access to the images marveled at the tracking software. It was like a window into “a little LMSD soap opera,” a staffer is quoted as saying in an e-mail to Carol Cafiero, the administrator running the program.

“I know, I love it,” she is quoted as having replied.

The remote monitoring system was supposed to be used to track lost or stolen laptops. The district says the camera was turned on because Robbins had failed to pay the $55 insurance fee required to take the laptop home.

His parents’ suit claims district records show more than 400 photos and screen images from their son’s laptop during two weeks last fall, plus “thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots” of  “numerous other students in their homes.”

Robbins and his parents say they first learned of the technology on Nov. 11, when an assistant Harriton principal confronted the teen with an image collected by the tracking software.

Robbins has said one image showed him with a handful of Mike and Ike candies – which the administrator thought were illegal pills.

School officials could have demanded that Robbins return the laptop or pay the insurance fee without taking a single photo — much less 400 — to prove he’d taken it home. There is no excuse for tracking his web use or online chats.

Spying on students via 'free' laptops

School administrators are spying on students at home by remotely activating the webcams on school-supplied laptops, charge parents in a lawsuit against Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia. Using state and federal fundings, the affluent district provided laptops to 1,800 high school students.

Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., said they first found out about the alleged spying last November after their son Blake was accused by a Harriton High School official of “improper behavior in his home” and shown a photograph taken by his laptop.

An assistant principal at Harriton later confirmed that the district could remotely activate the Webcam in students’ laptops. “Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through [Assistant Principal] Ms. Matsko, that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the Webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer,” the lawsuit stated.

It’s hard to believe this is true. I hope it’s not. The district has not responded to the lawsuit yet. Maybe the parents are crazy and there was no photo of “improper behavior.” If it is true, the administrators are crazy. And apparently don’t have enough to do with their time.

Update: The superintendent says officials remotely activated the webcams only to find lost or stolen laptops and will disable the remote activation feature. Meanwhile, students have taped over the cameras.

Deworming works better than laptops

On a visit to Rio, my daughter took the favela tour, which included a visit to a slum school where children were working on computers. The slum also had gotten running water. Which helps kids more? Probably clean water, argues Timothy Ogen in Miller-McCune Online.

One Laptop per Child — an attempt to transform Third World education by distributing $100 laptops — is faltering, Ogden writes. But there are cheaper, more effective alternatives that make a real difference.

In the U.S., many programs to give laptops to students have been abandoned due to “high costs and no evidence of benefit,” writes Ogden. In the developing world, studies have shown few benefits to technology. In Romania, giving computers to poor families “had a negative effect on students’ grades and educational goals.” Giving computers, curriculum support and training to teachers in Colombia had “no impact on student outcomes.” A study in India found students did worse if they used computers during school hours but better if they used them after hours to drill on skills.

What does work? Deworming, writes Ogden.

Delivering deworming medication costs 50 cents per child per year in Kenya but yielded a 25 percent increase in school attendance; a similar program in India cost $4 per student per year and yielded a 20 percent attendance gain.

Nearly 40 years ago, a professor who’d taught in Africa told us about the curse of parasitic worms. Students had no energy to learn; workers tired easily.

Getting teachers to show up and teach also makes a big difference. Indian students did much better when “teachers were required to take date-stamped digital pictures of themselves with students each day in order to receive their pay.” Cost of each additional day of teacher attendance: $2.20.

Splitting classes into high and low performers helped both types of students in Kenya. Adding an other teacher was much cheaper than buying laptops.

In rural India, tutors improved the performance of low achievers at very low cost.

Because public schools are so bad in Third World countries (in part, because teachers don’t show up), poor families sacrifice to send their children to private schools with average fees of $3 a month, James Tooley, a British professor, has found.

Tooley estimates that more than 50 percent of urban slum-dwelling children, and nearly 25 percent of children in rural India, where per capita income is less than $2 a day, attend private school, even though public schools are nominally free.

. . . Cutting the cost of such schools in half via subsidies or scholarships, enabling even more parents to be able to afford to send their children (or to send additional children), would cost just $18 per child per year, on average.

Don’t fetishize technology — or anything else — warns Alexander Russo.

Keep It Simple, Smartie is a good slogan too.

A Kindle in Every Backpack

Every student would get an e-book device, proposes the Democratic Leadership Council in “A Kindle in Every Backpack.” From the New York Times:

Its authors argue that government should furnish each student in the country with a digital reading device, which would allow textbooks to be cheaply distributed and updated, and allow teachers to tailor an interactive curriculum that effectively competes for the attention of their students in the digital age.

The proposal would cost $9 billion more than the current print textbook budget, the authors estimate, but might save $700 million a year over traditional textbook purchases by the fifth year. Or not.

Developing the content of textbooks costs money — and it will cost even more to make the new e-books interactive and whizz-bangy.  (My husband authored college engineering textbooks; it takes time and skill to do it right.)

I don’t doubt that the paper textbook is going to be obsolete soon, if only to save kids’ backs, but the drive to hand out Kindles to all reminds me of the drive to hand out laptops.  That was supposed to revolutionize learning too.

Learning in Taiwan, Portugal

Taiwanese elementary students use hands-on learning, writes Bill Costello of Making Minds Matter.

For example, Taiwanese students went on a field trip to a castle they studied in social studies; they collected local plants and used them to make a dye in science; and they worked with compasses and rulers in math.

. . . I observed a science teacher and art teacher in Taiwan collaborate in guiding students through a science project that involved drawing.

Portugal is investing heavily in interactive whiteboards and laptops, writes Don Tapscott on Wikinomics. But what’s remarkable about seven-year-olds looking up the definition of “equinox” on their laptops is how well these kids can read.