[Extreme Dr. Forrester voice] I know who you are and I saw what you did.]
Stories like this have been coming out with some regularity since late March as schools across the country invest in some mix of digital tools to monitor students during online classes and physical equipment to track them and take their temperature when or if they’re actually on school grounds.
The same kind of thing is happening in the workplace, as employers ramp up their monitoring tools, ranging from thermal scanners to take temperatures as people enter the office to bluetooth distance tracking to facial recognition. HR managers are now fielding all sorts of questions that used to be outside their purview, including those related to privacy issues arising from the kind of data collection that’s happening.
How useful such tools might be in the prevention of spreading Covid-19 or other viruses is questionable, usually cited as not being as effective as wearing a mask and washing your hands. Adopting those tools sometimes seems more like theater designed to make it appear as if a school district is taking steps to mitigate transmission amid a pandemic than to actually do something. Unsurprisingly, the costly systems are more likely to be implemented by private schools than their public school counterparts.
Those tools are, though, preparing the children for the reality they’ll be facing in the workplace as well as much of the rest of the world.
As I wrote on Productivity Lost:
Monitoring methods include keystroke logging, wiretapping, GPS tracking and Internet monitoring, which includes surveillance of employees’ web surfing, email, instant messaging and interaction on social networking sites.
Essentially, anything anyone does on a corporate-owned machine – be it desktop computer or mobile device – can and will be monitored. It all stems from the notion, which is not completely incorrect even if it is overreaching, that everything someone does while at work should be directed toward the benefit of the employer. All time spent should be in service to the company and its stakeholders.
While occasional legal challenges crop up, most of the time the companies wind up just fine, to the point that many have begun installing software on personal mobile devices that allow employers to track both their physical and digital activities.
Much of that monitoring and tracking is being done in the name of productivity, just as the tracking being done of students is being done in the name of keeping kids engaged and seeing when they’re not. What should be viewed as a privacy nightmare involving children unable to provide consent is actually just a preview of what they’ll face when they’re adults in the workforce.
Just as there’s little evidence temperature checks will impact the spread of disease, there’s little evidence digital employee monitoring and tracking improves productivity. In fact, there are a number of studies showing actual or assumed tracking hinders productivity and reduces morale. That, of course, hasn’t stopped companies from getting those systems up and running, especially in the months since the pandemic drastically increased the number of people working from home.
While it’s been widely decried by many parents, in many ways remote learning is better preparing students for their future in the knowledge economy than the regular classroom settings they’d otherwise be in right now. Work, after all, doesn’t consist of moving from one room to the other every 50-odd minutes, checking in with friends you pass in the hallway in between those sessions. It’s sitting in front of your computer over a series of hours that seem to blend into one another, answering emails and sending digital documents.
It also seems to be preparing them for the fact that their activities and actions both physical and digital are going to be monitored, collected and analyzed by overseers they are accountable to but who themselves often face little in the way of accountability.