"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Tennessee Classroom Video Camera Project Spending Millions to Extend Teacher and Student Surveillance


Tennessee Classroom Video Camera Project Spending Millions to Extend Teacher and Student Surveillance

Jim Horn and Denise Wilburn

In a move to quell growing concern among parents over security issues related to new Common Core testing and the collection of student data, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman recently assured skeptical lawmakers and parents that “the federal government is prohibited from establishing a student-level database that would contain assessment data for every student.” 

Despite these assurances, the TN Department of Education has been engaged in a multimillion dollar experiment since 2013 to record, store, and share video and audio data from Tennessee classrooms in 19 schools systems across the state.  And even though the video data is not stored by the federal government, it is stored by a third party corporate vendor with close links to the Gates Foundation.

Although the classroom camera experiment has remained unannounced to the public, the TN Department of Education began placing The thereNow Classroom Observation and Performance Feedback System in Tennessee classroom during the 2012-13 school year.  Schools Matter became aware of this issue through concerned sources in a number of counties where the use of cameras has been recently to teachers.

A search of past press releases by the Department found no previous mention of the $3,700,737 Gates Foundation grant issued to TDOE in November 2012 to “support multiple measures of effective teaching including the use of student surveys and video recordings of best practices of teaching.” However, SM did find a prominent press release announcing a smaller grant for another important program, though much less likely to generate as much controversy: Tennessee Gets $3 Million to Grow Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. 

Since early 2013, the powerful network-ready portable cameras have been placed in 55 schools of 19 districts in Tennessee, and state officials indicate that more are on the way.   Earlier this week, the State Department of Education agreed to send the list of participating systems in the classroom camera project, along with the total amount of the Gates grant and any record of a public announcement of the grant.  The following day, however, Communications Director, Kelli Gauthier indicated that SM must file an Open Records Request before this information will be released. 

According to Courtney Seiler, director for the camera project for the TN Department of Education, the purpose of the program is to provide cameras so that school systems may use them as optional tools for teacher evaluation, professional development, monitoring of struggling teachers, and for the capture of lessons by teachers of high performing students so that the lessons may be archived and shared via the Web-based library with other participating systems in the state.  

Six separate accounts are available for each camera, which allows up to six “keyholders” to operate and upload video data. The holders of the camera keys, whether evaluators or teachers, have the capacity to monitor and record occurrences of student behavior with comments that cue the exact moment of off-task behavior, flagging attention, verbal miscues by teachers, or any other observable behavior deemed worthy of archiving. 

Seiler indicated that the choice of cameras was made after it was determined that most Tennessee schools do not have the bandwidth required to utilize there.Now’s top of the line camera, the iris LiveView, which allows for real time remote video monitoring and camera control, as well two-way audio sharing so that an observer in a remote location may provide corrective commands through wireless earpieces designed for teachers to wear during recording (“firewall must be configured to allow access for: www.thereNow.net (IP= 129.123.46.32).” 

With Tennessee now spending millions to upgrade school computer networks so that online Common Core testing can move forward, it seems only a matter of time until the more advanced cameras will be made available in Tennessee schools.

Presently, however, Tennessee is using the portable DUO camera (see video below), which is a very powerful tool as well:

Capturing classroom video can be a challenge. Between camera set up to getting a playing file onto an online environment, off the shelf solutions just don’t give users a truly turn key solution.

The insight DUO allows teachers to capture video with one touch! By inserting their personal recording key, the classroom camera captures two discrete angles of video, and three discrete audio channels (including one from an hd wireless microphone). To stop the recording the teacher simply removes the recording key.

At the end of the lesson or day, the classroom camera is connected to the internet and the video automatically gets uploaded to the user’s account that was used to capture the video. By giving each teacher their own recording key, you can freely share the classroom camera during the day and the insight DUO manages the security, transcoding, and uploading of the files – all to the applicable user accounts.

Once a recording has been made, the video and audio data is uploaded to a third party server at an undisclosed location in Utah, where the camera vendor, thereNow.net, is located.  Those six individuals holding accounts may log in to review the videos and may share the videos with others who have thereNow accounts.

The six key accounts for each camera may be assigned to administrator or teachers.  In Washington County, for instance, where cameras are used as a tool for recording teacher observations that are part of teacher evaluations, administrators control camera keys, even though teachers may request their own video copies of observations, which may be downloaded to portable drives that they may keep. 

With parental concern over potential student data sharing now a national issue, we asked Washington County Assistant Superintendent, Bill Flanary, if parents had been consulted or if parental consent forms had made available to parents.  Dr. Flanary indicated there were no plans to establish informed consent.  “It did not occur to us,” he said, “there are so many surveillance cameras in the schools, what difference will another camera make?”


In Part II, we will examine the privacy issues for both students and teachers from the educators’ perspective, and we will examine in more detail responses to this the collection and storage of student video data.

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