Thursday, March 3, 2011

108 - Benevolent’ surveillance of students is here'- by Neha Bhatt - Source - Outlook India

Benevolent’ surveillance of students is here'- by Neha Bhatt

Big brother’s not just watching, but texting too; and playing out his Orwellian fantasies in no less a place than your child’s school. As schools opened after the summer break, a few thousand students found their identity cards turning into tracking devices that monitor and report every move they make to parents. As the card, now fitted with a microchip, arrives at the school gates, a message is sent out: “Your ward has reached school”. The day ends with a message announcing his departure. That’s not all: The new ‘R-Fi’ (radio frequency) monitoring system being aggressively marketed to schools can be customised to keep parents in the loop about everything from attendance at lessons, exam scores, even when and why a child has been punished.

Fifteen schools across the country have already bought the R-Fi system within a month of its launch by the Nagpur-based manufacturer, Pinnacle Teleservices, and the company expects to sign up 50 by the end of the year. At Rs 600-1,000 per child per annum, this doesn’t come cheap, yet there are takers. Why, when there are no statistics whatsoever to show a growing trend of children not reaching school or home safely?

Some parents and principals are happy, but others say monitoring devices would fuel “an environment of fear

Parents want reassurance, say some schools, especially in the case of students who walk to school, or take public transport. At the New Apostolic English High School, Nagpur, principal Vinita Bower says: “We don’t provide transport to children, so R-Fi will help us assure parents their children are safe.” Some parents do seem to buy the safety and security argument. Sushma Rani, whose son Ashwin is a student of Vishal Bharti School in Delhi, which has bought the service, says happily, “We’ll always know whether our children have reached safe and sound”.
It’s clear, though, that safety is not the only spur. R.G. Yevale, founder-president of Pune’s Vidyadhan Education Society, in whose schools the system has been installed, says: “In a competitive environment, this gives us an opportunity to advertise ourselves as a hi-tech institute.” This is a belief echoed by Jalandhar-based Lovely Professional Institutions, which has devised its own biometric system to track its 24,000 students. Many schools Outlook spoke to agreed that surveillance was a matter of pride—just like snagging a battery of cameras.

On the other hand, some educationists believe devices such as R-Fi and GPS may only end up generating a false sense of security—and fuelling, as educationist Abha Adams puts it, “an environment of fear”. She argues: “Schools are gated communities and children are shadowed pretty closely through the day so there is really no need to feel insecure about your child.” As for parents, she says, “It’s a very small minority that are looking for such antiseptic safety. What every parent wants is a learning experience for their child and no amount of hi-fi sci-fi is going to compensate for that.”

Some educationists say the increasing desire to use electronic surveillance is a reaction to unwieldy student numbers. Manju Bharat Ram, chairperson of The Shri Ram Schools in Delhi, says, “We have 11 students to a teacher, so we don’t need to track them. Moreover, tracking or tagging goes against the trust that you, as a parent, put in the school, and in your child. I don’t think any child would like to be monitored that way.”

Do children fully grasp the meaning of being put under the scanner? Sushma’s son, Ashwin, soon to enter the world of R-Fi, says, “My parents will feel better when they know I have reached school.... But then, my parents will also be smsed immediately about every little act of misbehaviour.”

Mysore-based student counsellor Ruchika G. Naidu doesn’t like the sound of that. “When children realise they are being spied on, they don’t get the opportunity to express themselves freely and naturally,” she says. Perhaps, it would do well to ask: Do those who invest in surveillance really want them to?