Security software on learning devices will track search history but not students' locations: MOE

Teck Whye Secondary students using personal learning devices in this file photo. The software lets schools manage students' usage of tablets or laptops that support home-based learning. PHOTO: TECK WHYE SECONDARY SCHOOL
Teck Whye Secondary students using personal learning devices. PHOTO: TECK WHYE SECONDARY SCHOOL

SINGAPORE - A software that will be installed in students' learning devices will capture data on their online activities such as Web search history, but it does not track personal information like location, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said on Thursday (Jan 28) in response to privacy concerns.

The device management application (DMA), which allows schools to manage students' usage of tablets or laptops used for learning, will not keep tabs on details such as their identification numbers or passwords.

Mr Aaron Loh, divisional director of MOE's educational technology division, gave this assurance in response to criticism that the DMA would infringe on students' privacy and freedom.

The ministry had said in March 2020 that the software will need to be installed on devices issued to students, and in December said this applied as well to students’ own tablets or laptops used for school.

The devices are meant to support home-based learning, which starts from the third term of this year, for at least two days a month in all secondary schools, junior colleges and Millennia Institute.

The DMA allows schools and parents to monitor device usage by restricting certain applications from being accessible by students. Examples include inappropriate websites with adult or extremist content, as well as gaming websites or applications.

It can also manage screen time by setting limits on the amount of time spent on the devices, for example. According to some schools' websites, the DMA also allows teaching and learning applications to be remotely deployed onto students' devices.

A petition posted on website Change.org last Saturday called for the MOE not to install the DMA in learning devices, and raised concerns that schools are going overboard if they can gain control over how students use the devices and see what they use them for.

The petition attracted more than 5,700 signatures as at Thursday afternoon.

In response to queries about the DMA's purpose, Mr Loh said: "To perform its intended function, the DMA will capture data on student's online activities such as Web search history in order to restrict access to objectionable material, and device information such as the operating system to facilitate troubleshooting.

"The data will be stored in secure servers managed by appointed DMA vendors with stringent access controls. This is in line with the Government's personal data laws and policies to safeguard sensitive data collected by public agencies."

Still, some students said they were not comfortable with MOE knowing how they use their devices.

Secondary 2 student Ethan Fun, 14, currently uses his own laptop for school work, gaming and social media. He said: "I feel that MOE is over-controlling students by asking us to install this application on our personal devices. Students also need their own personal privacy and space."

He intends to purchase a separate device from school for academic use later this year.

Secondary 4 student Xavier Lim, 16, said that blocking access on school-provided devices to certain inappropriate sites during school hours is reasonable.

"However, this could be easily done through something less drastic like simple blocker software. It does not require teachers to access a student's device remotely, let alone be able to see what they are doing without their knowledge."

Mr Loh said that parents who wish to use their own existing home digital devices as their children's devices for school may do so.

"Such devices will have to meet the necessary school specifications and have the DMA installed without charge," he said. This is to ensure cyber security, as the devices will be connected to the school's IT network, he said.

Mr Loh said: "We appreciate the feedback expressed by some students and parents on having greater flexibility over the use of the personal learning devices. We will engage them and see what arrangements can be worked out."

For a start, MOE is working towards giving parents the option to manage their child's device after school hours, during weekends and school holidays, if parents prefer a different control setting from that applied during the school hours, he added.

The school will also uninstall the DMA from the students' devices upon graduation.

Mr Loh said the DMA was installed in the personal learning devices of students in some secondary schools as part of a pilot in 2019.

"Parents and teachers then affirmed the benefits and the need for the DMA. In particular, the DMA allowed teachers to have appropriate controls in place to manage students' device usage in classrooms," he said.

"Parents were also assured that the DMA could address their concerns about access to undesirable content online - for example, pornography, gambling, et cetera - and excessive screen time."

He said the ministry is clear about the benefits of the DMA in the school environment.

"The DMA will enable effective classroom management during lesson time, as teachers can make use of the DMA to focus students' attention on the learning activities."

For instance, teachers will be able to monitor and control students' screens during lessons.

Parents interviewed are largely supportive of schools monitoring their teenagers' devices.

Private educator Lim Wee Ming, 45, whose Secondary 1 and Secondary 4 sons use a family laptop for learning purposes, said: "I don't think schools will randomly go into students' devices to see what they are doing. From what I understand, teachers can access the devices to perhaps show students a certain learning function, or take over the students' screens, and this is necessary for more efficient learning.

"Anyway, we already send our personal data to companies like Apple and Google, so why kick up a fuss?"

Madam Eunice Tay, who has a son in Secondary 1, said she would leave it to the school's discretion to decide how best to control the learning device.

"I appreciate that as a parent, I don't have an additional device to monitor," said the 44-year-old entrepreneur, adding that schools could give some leeway if students decide to use their personal devices for school.

"They may have bought it for other reasons or share it with siblings, so it would be quite difficult to use if the DMA is installed. Maybe schools can exercise some flexibility not to install the full-fledged version, or allow the DMA to be turned off at certain times like after school and on weekends," she said.

Ms Cassandra Nadira Lee, 46, who has a son in Secondary 2, said schools could engage with students to explain why installing the DMA is necessary, so that it does not feel like a directive imposed on them.

"It's not easy but MOE has to find a balance between wanting to protect them, and ensuring they don't feel like they're being controlled," said the executive leadership coach.