Class Dojo and classroom surveillance

Does scoring and ranking the behavior of children really help them?

ClassDojo is an online behavior management system “actively used in 95% of all K-8 schools in the U.S. and 180 countries” with “1 in 6 U.S. families with a child under 14,” according to the software maker’s website.

Its intention is to foster positive student behaviors and it allows children to earn something called “Dojo Points” based on their classroom conduct. In order to earn points, teachers have to monitor and record behavior in some seemingly objective way and they can even project real-time scores to the rest of the class or to parents (with whom teachers can now limit face-to-face interaction).

A culture of surveillance

Critics are concerned about the privacy of this information as well as the psychological effects that constant measurement has on children. It’s meant to reinforce good behavior and help teachers and parents intervene with students exhibiting “bad” behavior. But is it yet another insidious tool in our new surveillance culture as well as our obsession with the quantification of the self?

ClassDojo claims the concerns voiced by critics are wrong:

“The picture painted of ClassDojo by the article and by some online pundits is in stark contrast to the way real classrooms and households experience ClassDojo: positive moments, ways to improve, and causes for celebration, all shared over a safe, private 2-way communication channel between teacher and parent.”

This reveals a fundamental difference in the way people think about monitoring, measuring, and sharing information about children and to what extent it’s acceptable and helpful. Even if we put aside privacy concerns about the data being hacked or misused, the constant quantification of behavior and achievement can be anxiety-inducing and promote unhealthy competition. There’s no doubt that Class Dojo is right about providing “positive moments,” but that’s not what critics are worried about. They’re worried about the shame-inducing negative moments and the already high-anxiety classroom culture that kids experience.

Good behavior – but at what price?

And while the ClassDojo team is made up of parents and former teachers and no doubt is trying to solve the troubling problem of creating a better classroom and alleviating parental concerns about their kids, we need to think about the psychological consequences (in addition to the privacy concerns). In fact, this is a great example of a group of people trying to do good but simply batting away the ethical issues surrounding their technology. Simply replying that the majority of adults have a good experience using the software isn’t a helpful response.

First grade classroom at the elementary school in the village Ait Sidi Hsain, near Meknes. The school has 610 students of which 243 are girls. There are 16 teachers. The school is part of a conditional cash transfer (CCT) program — Tayssir — which started out in 2008. It aims to prevent children in Morocco’s poorest rural areas from dropping out of school by transferring regularly a monthly amount of money per child to the families. So far, 254 households in the village has benefited from the program. Getting — and keeping — boys and girls in school, particularly in underprivileged areas, is a key development priority for the government of Morocco. The World Bank assisted in this effort advising on the design and implementation of the targeted cash transfer program, as well as by evaluating results to facilitate optimal scale-up in the future. The CCT program now reaches more than 340,000 students (or 200,000 households) both in elementary and secondary school. (Photo: Arne Hoel)

Since the data gathered by ClassDojo includes teacher-assessed behavior and character traits and assigns them a value, one might also wonder what counts as a model student and how much room that leaves for diversity (not only in terms of ethnicity but neurodiversity as well).

ClassDojo isn’t going anywhere any time soon – in fact, its use will probably grow. But that’s why it’s important for people to keep asking questions about whether and how students are benefitting and how this exceptionally personal data is being kept safe (especially since schools are popular targets for hackers and ransomware).

We could certainly use some good, independent research on how it’s affecting children, not just in terms of their scores, but their sense of self.

Further reading:

Classroom technology is indoctrinating students into a culture of surveillance (Forbes, 2019)

ClassDojo raises concerns about children’s rights (The Conversation, 2019)

Vast amounts of data about our children are being harvested and stored via apps used by schools (EduResearch Matters, 2019)

Now with revenue, ClassDojo raises $35 million to expand to homes across the world (EdSurge, 2019)

The datafication of discipline: ClassDojo, surveillance and a performative classroom culture (Learning, Media, and Technology, 2018)

ClassDojo: do we really need an app that could make classrooms overly competitive? (The Guardian, 2018)

Privacy concerns for ClassDojo and other tracking apps for schoolchildren (The New York Times, 2014)

Why school systems? The rise of ransomware in public schools (Government Technology, 2019)

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