Should we be monitoring student use of laptops?

One of my aims as eLearning Coordinator, is to develop systems that support teachers using laptops in their classroom. One of the frequent questions I get asked is about how teachers can stop students from being off task whilst on their laptops. Being off task, generally means that students are using their computers for something other than the educational purposes outlined by the teacher. As a school we want to force more accountability back to the students.

Here are some of my personal thoughts, and a reflection at the end.

  • Good Lesson Planning – a good lesson that keeps students involved, contains examples and is interactive will obviously increase student engagement. Lesson plans should also spell out how students will use laptops in the classroom. Not every lesson will be action packed and full of excitement, but structure and purposeful activities will improve engagement.
  • Circulating around the Classroom – try teaching from different points in the class. I use a laser pointer and clicker to teach from different parts of the room. This will let you see what the students are doing more easily. Be prepared to sit within and among the students when they are doing independent work. Sitting beside students in a casual fashion allows them to ask questions when they feel ready. Also think about the arrangement of the desks and the relative position of your desk. Manage the class by walking around.
  • Consistency of Expectations – setting expectations within a 1 to 1 classroom is very important. I don’t think a school should mandate such rules, but teachers can establish these within their classes. I prefer that students have laptops turned on and sitting on the desk, but not open to begin a lesson. When I am speaking or discussing I ask them to lower their lids with a stupid crocodile hand gesture. After a while students understand what is a appropriate in your class if you consistently reinforce these expectations. Posters around the room are a good idea or stickers and hints on the desks.
  • Pick your Battles – obviously some indiscretions are worse than others. When a student is checking out website and other students become distracted then most teachers would step in. Small warnings, and system of yellow and red cards could be appropriate. Laptops are a privilege so be prepared to remove the laptop for a period of time, from a student who has ignored warnings
  • Use timers: students work better when they are under a slight amount of pressure. Set guidelines for some activities such as short quizzes or group jigsaw activities and less guidelines for independent work.

How do you know that students are off task?

  • Body Language – head position, eyes tracking quickly over the screen and rapid clicking are all signs of off task behaviour.
  • Flicking screen – in a mac system, students use the spaces functions to quickly switch between screens and hide functions. It is also difficult to see what activities students have running in the background. It could appear that they are working on a project, whilst also arranging youTube playlists in the background.

Remote Management Software

Our school uses the Apple Remote Management software for occasional checks on student laptop use. This system runs through our wireless network.  As long as students are connected to the network, and have activated “Remote Management” under Settings, an administrator can then observe each students screen. Each student macbook at our school is set up with duel accounts, one for home use and one for school use. The current issue is that students are administrators on their home accounts, which then allows them to change the sharing settings on their school accounts.

Students will therefore turn off the Remote Management option when they don’t wish to be observed by the school administrator. This is turned on by default in our setup, so student will receive a severe reprimand for changing this setting. However this takes a lot of time to track students who have changed the sharing settings and then follow through with consequences.

The useful functions of Remote Management are shown below. It is very easy to take a picture of a students screen. Staff can then use this picture later to begin a discussion with the students. Staff can also shift from observing the computer, to taking control, to then close down any applications or games.

Source – Apple Remote Desktop – Technology Overview


My overall feeling of the Remote Management system is that is feels like we are the police and the students are trying to figure out how to outsmart us. In the end with a large school, this is never a battle we could win, or would want to win. We don’t want to impinge on teachers, through using Remote Management to ruin the classroom culture and relationship between students and the teacher.

I feel that our energies are better spent educating students about what is effective use of their laptops. Technology is such an intimate part of their life and is used across their social life and school life. Yet students need to learn how to distinguish between appropriate school uses of laptops and the potential social uses (eg. watching youTube, checking twitter, playing games) This needs to be an ongoing conversation between teachers and students and could be an important part of any pastoral programme at a 1 to 1 laptop school.

This article provided the impetus for my post and reflection – Apple Remote Desktop – A good thing?

6 thoughts on “Should we be monitoring student use of laptops?

  1. RobinThailand says:

    Great post…very well thought out and presented.
    Another thing that Remote Desktop does, is give administrators a good vision of what’s happening in the classrooms. Monitoring student use of laptops does more than assure us the students are on task – it assures administrators that the lessons are meaningful, challenging and relevant to the curriculum.
    By seeing how often students stray from the lessons, stay focused, etc – it offers immediate feedback to administrators that can be used in teacher evaluations and feedback sessions. They used to call it the two-way mirror…now it’s called RD.

    Thanks for this.

  2. Ian Pittman says:

    We are in the very early stages of exploring the possibility of moving to a 1:1 environment, so your observations are very useful to me…thanks.

    One bit of advice I picked up once from Stephen Heppell, regarding monitoring kids hiding behind laptops, was to put up a big mirror at the back of the class. A simple, low-tech solution.

    • Andrew McCarthy says:

      Hi Ian,

      Thanks for the nice comment. When establishing a 1 to 1 environment this was one of the our staffs bigger initial concerns. I think if you try develop some systems and protocols from the beginning, students will understand the boundaries and work effectively. As an analogy, students still day dream and are off task on occasions, just as teachers do as well. Nobody asks me to monitor students dreams 🙂 Good class management and engaging lessons are the easiest first step in developing an purposeful 1 to 1 school.


  3. Padma Menon says:

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for the valuable tips on having the 1 to 1 class environment. I agree that too much policing of the student can be negative and the best way is to keep them engaged and making them accountable.

    I will definitely be using some of the strategies outlined by you in my classroom. Thanks again.


  4. LottaN says:

    I’ve been trying to put my experiences of classroom management with the one-to-one computers in words several times, speaking to colleagues who feel insecure with the computers in the classroom, but never managed to do it so beautifully as you do!

    Thanks so much, I have posted a link to your blog on our school network.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s