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Nothing Changes

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I’m really sick of people calling what’s happening right now “the new normal”, especially when it comes to schools. Nothing about the current efforts to cobble together an online replica of the classroom will replace the traditional face-to-face experience.

Since the beginning of this mess, I’ve been reading all kinds of predictions about how American education will change as a result of the reaction to COVID-19. Some speculate that school will be drastically altered as a result of this catastrophe.

How Much Are We Really Missing?

Today is the last day of the academic year here in the overly-large school district. This has been a challenging semester – for teachers, students, parents – to say the least.

Now comes the inevitable analysis of how much students have missed in the chaos of an abrupt switch to online schooling. Research cited in a New York Times article says some students have fallen “months behind”. NPR comes to similar conclusions based on a large survey of parents.

It Won’t Just Go Away

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Come September, the COVID-19 virus is likely to still be a public health problem, which, as I discussed in an earlier post, will make opening school for the new year a challenge.

According to Wired, at least one K12 district in Ohio believes they can address some virus-related issues using surveillance technology to continually track of where students are and who they come in contact with during the day.

It’s Not About Safety

homeland security

Lots of discussion in my feeds last week about school surveillance. Most of it was concerning a New York Times article about a small district near Niagara Falls that recently switched on a facial recognition system in it’s eight schools.

While they are one of the first K12 districts in the US to adopt this technology, the writer notes that similar systems are already being used in many public spaces like airports and sports arenas. In addition, more than 600 “law enforcement agencies” have adopted facial recognition software from a company called Clearview AI in just the past year.

All in the name of “security” and public safety, of course.

School Is Hearing You

Schools, and many other businesses, are concerned with the possibility of violence in their buildings, justifiably in many areas. So, administrators are looking for new technologies that would allow them to spot trouble before it happens. Technologies that include AI-enhanced video and audio surveillance.

A new report from the non-profit investigative journalism organization ProPublica1 says that there are many companies are only too happy to sell them systems which, they claim, can detect an incident in the making.

By deploying surveillance technology in public spaces like hallways and cafeterias, device makers and school officials hope to anticipate and prevent everything from mass shootings to underage smoking. Sound Intelligence also markets add-on packages to recognize the sounds of gunshots, car alarms and broken glass, while Hauppauge, New York-based Soter Technologies develops sensors that determine if students are vaping in the school bathroom. The Lockport school district in upstate New York is planning a facial-recognition system to identify intruders on campus.

The various systems rely on algorithms to sort out the various sounds and alert administrators when something matches particular patterns stored in the database. However, at least one system analyzed by ProPublica produced many false positives, while also recording and storing the audio collected by its microphones.

Yet ProPublica’s analysis, as well as the experiences of some U.S. schools and hospitals that have used Sound Intelligence’s aggression detector, suggest that it can be less than reliable. At the heart of the device is what the company calls a machine learning algorithm. Our research found that it tends to equate aggression with rough, strained noises in a relatively high pitch, like D’Anna’s [a student who worked with the reporters] coughing. A 1994 YouTube clip of abrasive-sounding comedian Gilbert Gottfried (“Is it hot in here or am I crazy?”) set off the detector, which analyzes sound but doesn’t take words or meaning into account. Although a Louroe spokesman said the detector doesn’t intrude on student privacy because it only captures sound patterns deemed aggressive, its microphones allow administrators to record, replay and store those snippets of conversation indefinitely.

As you might expect, surveillance technologies like this can often side effects, especially when used with young people in schools.

Dr. Nancy Rappaport, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who studies school safety, said the audio surveillance could have the unintended consequence of increasing student distrust and alienation. She added that schools are opting for inexpensive technological fixes over solutions that get to the root of the problem, such as more counseling for troubled kids. One Louroe microphone with aggression software sells for about $1,000.

Covering a school with microphones to spy on the kids is far cheaper than hiring qualified counselors who will actually interact with them.

Anyway, then there is the problem inherent with any kind of artificial intelligence: the underlying code that analyzes the data collected is written by human beings, and far too often incorporates their biases.

Researchers have also found that implementing algorithms in the real world can go astray because of incomplete or biased training data or incorrect framing of the problem. For example, an algorithm used to predict criminal recidivism made errors that disproportionately punished black defendants.2

There is much more detail in the the full report, including an explanation of how they tested the devices they purchased, along with audio and video of the students they enlisted to help. The whole thing is worth your time, especially if you teach in a school district that might be considering surveillance systems of any kind.

But I also wonder what students might think about this issue. About the idea of school administrators collecting and storing the sounds of their daily life. This report might make a wonderful jumping off point for discussion and further investigation in their community.


The image is one of the Sound Intelligence microphones purchased by ProPublica. It is intended to be installed on the ceiling, and the fact that it resembles a common smoke detector is probably not a coincidence.

1. For their wide-ranging investigations and reporting, ProPublica is well worth your financial support.

2. For much more about the problems with allowing algorithms to make decisions concerning people, I highly recommend the book “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil

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