Comments on ClassDojo controversy

Ben Williamson

ClassDojo Class Story Picture

The educational app ClassDojo has been the target of articles in several British newspapers. The Times reported on data privacy risks raised by the offshoring of UK student data to the US company–a story The Daily Mail re-reported. The Guardian then focused on ClassDojo promoting competition in classrooms. All three pieces have generated a stream of public comments. At the current time, there are 56 comments on the Mail piece, 78 at The Times, and 162 on The Guardian. I’ve been researching and writing about ClassDojo for a couple of years, on and off, and was asked some questions by The Times and The Guardian. So the content of the articles and the comments and tweets about them raise issues and questions worth their own commentary–a response to key points of controversy that also speak to wider issues  with the current expansion of educational technology across public education, policy and practice. ClassDojo has also now released its own response and reaffirmation of its privacy policy.

ClassDojo is highly divisive. Online newspaper comments often degenerate into polarized hectoring, but it is apparent (from both the comments and Twitter reactions) that the  expansion of ClassDojo has both enthused some teachers and appalled others. More subtly, some teachers dislike the reward app but like the social media aspects of it, which allow them to streamline messaging to parents and upload photos, videos and examples of student work. Other teachers appear to find the parent messaging a burden, as it makes them available to parents on-demand at all times. These tensions in themselves are reason for some caution regarding ClassDojo marketing claims that the product creates ‘happier classrooms’ and ‘connects teachers with students and parents to build amazing classroom communities.’ More pressingly, they point to real tensions over ed-tech apps among the teaching profession, and the potential of substantial non-use and resistance, as education becomes increasingly digitized.

Teachers’ views about ClassDojo have not been sought. Some comments pointed out that while the newspapers consulted experts and pundits (and ‘PC snowflakes’), none asked teachers about ClassDojo. As I pointed out to The Guardian, there simply is not a body of evidence of how ClassDojo is being used in practice (unless I’ve missed it). This is going to be a large research task since, as many comments pointed out, ClassDojo is used in very different ways as teachers adapt it to their own practices. It’s also in use around the world, in multiple languages. Nonetheless, detailed studies of the situated and contextualized uses of ClassDojo need to be undertaken to listen to teachers’ voices, observe how the app slips into classroom practices, and trace out the effects on children. While I would welcome more teachers’ voices about ClassDojo in the press, too, it’s important to be aware that ClassDojo recruits its own teacher ‘mentors’ and has a ‘Mentor Community’ of early-adopters. The mentors act as advocates for the app, with support from the company, to spread the word to other teachers (as explained in this interview from 28 minutes in). Although it appears ClassDojo has benefited from grassroots momentum, it has choreographed its bottom-up growth too. So selecting teacher voices to cut past its arms-length marketing community would be important.

Is adequate informed consent being sought and secured? As noted in The Times, the privacy policy for ClassDojo is 12,000 words, raising concerns that neither teachers nor parents are likely to fully understand the implications of signing children up to it. With the introduction of GDPR, this could raise problems—probably not for ClassDojo, which has a dedicated team of privacy consultants to ensure its compliance, but for schools if found to be breaching data laws. Ultimately, it is schools and teachers that collect and use the data, that are responsible for gaining informed consent for parents, that opt children in to ClassDojo or agree to parents’ opt-out wishes–again, we have too little evidence of school procedures to know the risks here. One comment at The Guardian reported resentment at the claim that the app had extended into teachers’ hands before awareness of the risks it raised had been considered. But this point was not an attack on teachers. It reflects a concern that teachers are being positioned as data privacy, security and consent experts when it is highly unlikely these are part of their initial professional education or continuing development. Nor, really, should teachers be expected to shoulder such responsibilities, especially if they carry legal consequences. Nonetheless, I think the lack of clarity here should trigger efforts to define what kind of ‘data literacy’ teachers, school leaders and governors may need in order to decide whether to use a free online ed-tech app or service, and what paperwork needs to be completed to ensure its use is ethical and legal. ClassDojo isn’t alone in raising difficult issues about consent. Pearson came under fire recently for experimental uses of student data without seeking their consent too.

Data privacy and protection concerns remain. ClassDojo has been dealing with privacy concerns since its inception, and it has well-rehearsed responses. Its reply to The Times was: ‘No part of our mission requires the collection of sensitive information, so we don’t collect any. … We don’t ask for or receive any other information [such as] gender, no email, no phone number, no home address.’ But this possibly misses the point. The ‘sensitive information’ contained in ClassDojo is the behavioural record built up from teachers tapping reward points into the app. ClassDojo has a TrendSpotter feature to allow analysis of those points over time. School leaders can view it. The behavioural points can follow children from one class to the next. Parent email addresses are required and are stored. While there is currently no indication of any kind of leak or breach from ClassDojo, there has been a steady increase in school cybersecurity incidents which raise wider questions regarding the security of student data. Even the well-resourced education platform EdModo was hacked recently, with the theft of 77 million users’ details. As reported in The Times, just like the commercial, financial and health sectors, ed-tech is not impervious to data security and privacy breaches.

Is ClassDojo monetizing student data? ClassDojo’s founders have stated clearly they will never sell student data for advertising. How it intends to make a profit and secure return on investment for its generous funders, however, remains unclear, giving rise to concerns about its monetization of student data. It has in the past suggested it could use those data to sell behavioural reports back to schools or even local authorities. It has also suggested it could sell ‘Education Bundles’ to parents (see from 51mins here). Its response to issues raised by the press confirmed it was seeking to produce saleable premium features. These are business proposals at present, and easily give rise to concerns about how the data may in future be used to make profit. As one commenter to The Guardian pointed out, ClassDojo needs to reassure teachers and parents by issuing clear and unambiguous statements about how it uses or intends to use the vast database of student behaviours it holds. It is not hard to imagine behaviourally-targeted premium content becoming feasible as it seeks to monetize the platform. Such fears may be unfounded. But it has to provide a return on investment for its investors at some point. It seems unlikely it will do so through sales of cuddly branded toys alone. Another way of securing a return on investment might be to sell the company, which would mean all ClassDojo data coming under its new owner’s privacy policy. Parents would be given 30 days to delete their child’s data in the event of a sale.

ClassDojo is Big Brother with a jolly green face. Not only does ClassDojo capture student behavioural information through the reward app; it also gathers photos, videos, digital portfolios of work, and permits messaging between teachers and parents. The company has slowly shifted from the behaviour app to become more like a social media platform for schools–even the rewards mechanism is similar to social media ‘liking.’ Just as Facebook presents itself as a platform for communities, ClassDojo’s founders and funders see it as the platform for building ‘amazing communities’ of children, teachers, schools and parents. The addition of ‘school-wide’ functionality makes it into the main communication mechanism for many schools, and a way for school leaders to have oversight of class data. Whether ClassDojo is really building ‘amazing communities’ is an empirical question. Researchers of  social media have identified the commercial imperatives and surveillance mechanisms behind their ‘community’ ideals. ClassDojo has subtly worked its way into the central systems of schooling, shaping how teachers think about and monitor student behaviour, reconfiguring how teachers and parents communicate, giving headteachers new ways of observing behavioural trends, and giving parents ‘real-time’ ability to track and watch their children in the classroom. It is shaping what a school community should (ideally) be and how it can connect, with student behaviour metrics at its core. Many commenters on the newspaper stories raised fears about the effects of constantly monitoring and quantifying children. Studies of ClassDojo as a platform would help to reveal its community-building effects, and interrogate to what extent it extends surveillance in schools.

ClassDojo is offshoring student data. Both The Times and Mail reported that ClassDojo offshores sensitive student information to the US. My understanding from the ClassDojo website is all information it collects is stored by Amazon Web Services—so it could be in Dublin, somewhere in mainland Europe, or in the US. Amazon currently has no cloud storage facility in the UK. But AWS is now part of the backbone of the web (as well as government intelligence), so ClassDojo offshoring data is not unique. AWS has also made it extremely cheap to set up social media sites as it drastically reduces costs of data storage and access. In this sense, ClassDojo is part of the massive expansion of Amazon power across the internet and worldwide web, and emblematic of how individuals’ personal information is increasingly distributed, offshored and scattered in cloud computing centres. It does raise the question of just how much influence and commercial gain Amazon may be developing in public education though.

Third party data use. AWS is just one of many third party services employed to help run ClassDojo. The Times latched on to DataDog due to a data breach a couple of years ago, and noted Google and Facebook too. As I understand, Google supplies web analytics—the kind of data that permits ClassDojo to monitor user numbers, visitors to the site, frequency of use of the service and so on. The newspaper coverage may have led readers to understand sensitive student data was being shared with these third parties—or even sold to them. Some commenters immediately presumed the data was being sold to Facebook and Google for targeted advertising (the phrase ‘if the product is free, you’re the product’ was repeated in a lot of the more critical comments). ClassDojo have constantly reiterated that selling student data for advertising is not their business model, and The Guardian reported that too.

ClassDojo is just a digital ‘sticker chart’ or ‘house points’. There are, of course, continuities between ClassDojo and older practices of rewarding and disciplining students. The difference from sticker charts to ClassDojo is that the awarding or deduction of points can be viewed by parents, that the points become a persistent behavioural timeline that can be viewed for trends by teachers and/or school leaders, and that records can be carried across as children move from one class to another. It is much more sticky than sticker charts, which is why, as The Guardian reported, it raises concerns about labelling students in behavioural terms.

ClassDojo is behaviourist & promotes competition. As The Times and Mail reported, ClassDojo promotes ‘gamification’ by ranking students by number of points, which potentially incentivizes students to seek further points through actions they know the teacher will reward—rather than out of interest in the topic of study itself. The Guardian suggested this could make classrooms overly competitive. Of course, there are issues here of the reproduction of existing inequalities. Is the awarding of dojo points equally distributed across socio-economic, ethnic and gender categories? It also raises issues about the central behaviourist mechanism of ClassDojo, which is based on theories of positive reinforcement of ‘correct behaviours’ through issuing rewards and punishments. But who says what’s ‘correct’ behaviour, and on what basis? Apps like ClassDojo appear to be ‘nudging’ students to conform to the behavioural ideals that their designers have programmed in to the software.

ClassDojo exemplifies the growth of positive psychology education. The ClassDojo company is quite clear what ‘correct’ behaviour looks like—it’s behaviour that indicates a student is developing a growth mindset, grit and character. Its founders always talk about these ideas in media interviews, and cite as their major influences the psychologists Carol Dweck (growth mindset) and Angela Duckworth (grit). ClassDojo even ran a ‘Big Ideas’ series of animations teaching children and teachers about growth mindset and how it can be observed in students’ behaviours. Growth mindset in particular is now a hugely popular idea in education, but it’s not uncontested. A recent meta-analysis of growth mindset studies showed very small effects on student achievement, which seems to suggest that claims about the benefits have been overblown and oversold. One Twitter comment likened ClassDojo to ‘corporate Buddhism.’

Ed-tech is taking over the classroom. The ClassDojo controversy exemplifies wider recognition of the influence and impact of the ed-tech industry in shaping what happens in schools, as some comments noted. The ed-tech industry has circulated the idea that public schooling is broken—too much one-size-fits-all teaching and high-stakes testing leads to disengaged and stressed kids—and that their apps and analytics can fix it by ‘personalizing’ learning and thereby support the development of students’ resilient growth mindsets. Such a view has helped the ed-tech industry promote itself as the solution to public problems, and to begin inserting itself actively within the daily routines of schools. ClassDojo has expanded through social media network effects as a free app into the hands of teachers in schools all over the world, ultimately transmitting its company vision of what classroom behaviours should be like into the actions of teachers and students. In many ways, this appears profoundly undemocratic, as responsibility for defining the aims and purposes of public education around the world is assumed by tech-sector entrepreneurs according to their own readings of popular psychological and behavioural theory.

ClassDojo promotes neoliberal, individualized responsibility. From an overtly sociological perspective, ClassDojo is part of a movement in education policy, technology and practice to hold individuals responsible for their behaviours while completely ignoring all the contextual, cultural, socio-economic and political factors that shape students’ behaviours. For sociologists of ‘character education,’ for example, the idealized student under contemporary neoliberal austerity is an entrepreneurial, resilient and self-transforming individual who can take personal responsibility for dealing with chronic hardship and worsening insecurity. As part of the movement to enhance student character and mindset, ClassDojo may be reproducing this ideal, inciting teachers to issue positive reinforcement rewards for behaviours that indicate the development of entrepreneurial characteristics and individual self-responsibility.

Data-danger is a new media genre. The risks of ‘data-danger’ for children reported in the articles about ClassDojo doubtless need to be viewed through the wider lens of media interest in social media data misuses following the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. This presents opportunities and challenges. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness and perhaps prompt efforts to tighten up student privacy and data protection, where necessary, as GDPR comes into force. ClassDojo’s response to the controversy raised by the press confirmed it was working on GDPR compliance and would update its privacy policy accordingly. Certainly 2018 is shaping up as a year of public awareness about uses and misuses of personal data. It’s a challenge too, though, as media coverage tends to stir up overblown fears that risk obscuring the reality, and  that may then easily be dismissed as paranoid conspiracy theorizing. It’s important to approach ed-tech apps like ClassDojo–and all the rest–cautiously and critically, but to be careful not to get swept up in media-enhanced public outrage.

Image: ClassDojo
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One Response to Comments on ClassDojo controversy

  1. paulmartin42 says:

    As shown by Facebook exec questioning from politicians there is a dearth of understanding (will ?) on going Digital. If the top person has been wined & dined and then goes great guns for such then is it any surprise that previous procedures for preventing external access of such a dubious program are foregone.

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