MOE needs to think about its Device Management Applications, beyond the immediate

The Ministry of Education’s (MOE) plan to install device management applications (DMA) on at least one laptop/personal learning device per student has generated controversy and is the subject of an online petition to halt such measures –  a petition that is fast garnering signatories.

How it works:

In short, the DMA, once installed will give MOE the power to deploy teaching/learning programmes directly onto the student’s device remotely. It will also give teachers the power to halt any programme without the student’s input. In other words, what the student can and cannot see will be under the control of MOE. This also means that MOE will have access to whatever the student is viewing on that device.

Currently, the plan is to install DMA onto devices whether or not they are bought from or on loan from the school or personal devices.

Arguments for this rollout:

A big proponent for this plan is obviously efficiency.  After all, if MOE has the power to control learning devices, it can seamlessly upload and remove teaching materials seamlessly and without undue delays. It also means that there is uniformity of materials as they will be uploaded or removed en masse.

MOE has also suggested that the DMA will regulate a student’s online time to prevent such student from being online for too long.

Arguments against this rollout:

The most obvious concern is that of security. The petition has raised questions around data privacy and security breaches. For example, if the central program is compromised, all devices and all students will be similarly compromised.

Also, should MOE and teachers have the power to see everything a student is doing on that device? Does the student not have the right to privacy. Besides, even if there should be monitors of what a particular student is doing online, shouldn’t that be the purview of parents and not MOE? This is especially the case where the devices in question are personal or bought from the school. After all, if I have bought it, it is mine – it doesn’t give the school the power to snoop.

Secondly, questions have been raised as to whether or not DMA actually solves the underlying issues. For example, will the DMA actually effectively regulate a student’s online time? One obvious pitfall to this suggestion is that many students will have more than one device. They can easily switch the device to get around this.

On a longer-term perspective, we should be teaching students to self-regulate. In other words, for them to have their own internal discipline to switch off. However, simply preventing them access to online content when the teacher deems they have had enough with little or no consultation with the student does not inculcate self-awareness. What happens then when the imposed controls are off?

Dissecting the issues:

Of course, there is no suggestion, that MOE has any nefarious intentions. It is likely that MOE is trying to utilise the quickest and easiest way to rollout home-based learning. However, is the MOE prioritising short term efficacy over long term effects?

For example, simply physically preventing students access when the teacher deems he or she has had enough online time does not empower the student to make informed and mature decisions for themselves in the long term for it puts the onus on the teacher to prevent rather than on the student to think about his or her own well-being.

Surely, as an educator, we want our students to learn to make decisions for themselves and grow into well-rounded adults who are able to think for themselves. However, if you are outsourcing that power to teachers, how will students ever learn?

Secondly,  security concerns are also a valid point. It was not too long ago that the Ministry of Health had a data breach which affected some 1.5 million people including the Prime Minister himself! Then, there was the case where 14,200 HIV patients had their data compromised. Would the DMA not compromise every device it is installed in were the MOE to suffer a similar breach?

Thirdly, there is also the issue of data privacy. Should teachers have that much access to a student’s online activity? Who then regulates and monitors how teachers use that information? For example, back in 2018, a teacher got flak for uploading photographs of students’ answers online while mocking those answers. DMA, if not properly regulated, could enable this sort of unwanted behaviour.

The long and short of the matter is that MOE needs to weigh up the short term benefits against the longer term effects in a more in depth fashion. Rushing headlong into something could seem easy in the short term but end with long term effects that are undesirable and ultimately unconstructive.

Do we really need DMA right now? While the global pandemic may make it seem so, it bears remembering that the pandemic will not last forever and as a government department, MOE needs to think further than the immediate.

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