China students under netizens' watchful eye

A live-streaming camera at the Deep Blue Children Robot Centre in Jimo, Shandong province. Thousands of schools in China are broadcasting their students live on public websites, crowdsourcing the task of supervision.
A live-streaming camera at the Deep Blue Children Robot Centre in Jimo, Shandong province. Thousands of schools in China are broadcasting their students live on public websites, crowdsourcing the task of supervision.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Webcams open classrooms to public scrutiny and commentary, raising privacy concerns

BEIJING • When the first bell rings before 7am at Yuzhou No. 1 High School in central China, live-streaming cameras also spring to life, broadcasting live as students measure geometric angles, pass notes or doze during breaks.

Before long, thousands of people - not just parents and teachers - are watching online, offering armchair commentary.

"What is this boy doing? He's been looking around doing nothing, like a cat on a hot roof," one user wrote. "This one is playing with his phone!" added another, posting a screenshot.

As Internet speeds improve, live-streaming has become a cultural phenomenon in China. Now, the nation's obsession with live video is invading its schools, and not everyone is happy about it.

Thousands of schools - public and private, from kindergarten to college - are installing webcams in classrooms and streaming live on websites that are open to the public, betting that round-the-clock supervision, even from strangers, will help motivate students.

School officials see the cameras as a way to improve student confidence and crowdsource the task of catching misbehaving pupils. Parents use the feeds to monitor their children's academic progress and spy on their friendships and romances. But many students see it as an intrusion, prompting a broader debate in China about privacy, educational ethics and the perils of helicopter parenting.

"I hate it," said 17-year-old Ding Yue at Yuzhou No. 1 High, in Xuchang, a city in Henan province. "I feel like we are zoo animals."

Experts warn that live-streaming in schools will make Chinese youth, already used to the nation's extensive Internet censorship and use of outdoor security cameras, even more sensitive to surveillance.

"If classrooms are under surveillance at all times, instruction will definitely be influenced by outside factors and the opinions of whoever is watching," said Professor Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of 21st Century Education Research Institute.

After a critical article was published recently in The Beijing News, a prominent newspaper, several schools said they were ending the broadcasts. But thousands of others chose to remain online.

There are dozens of live-streaming platforms in China, and classroom feeds are on many of them.

In China's cut-throat education system, live-streaming has also found supporters among grades-obsessed parents looking for ways to push their children, and schools eager to improve academic performance. "It helps students spend their time more efficiently and get into their dream universities," a parent of a senior at Yuzhou No. 1 High wrote recently in an online forum.

Mr Han Xiao, a lawyer in Beijing who has spoken out against live-streaming in classrooms, said public broadcasts pose a threat to student safety. "Living under surveillance and fear will hurt students' potential to grow."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline 'China students under netizens' watchful eye'. Print Edition | Subscribe