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Joel Schmieg, early adopter and principal of Pekin Community High School.

Joel Schmieg, early adopter and principal of Pekin Community High School.

Photographer: Evan Jenkins for Bloomberg Businessweek

Big Teacher Is Watching: How AI Spyware Took Over Schools

The pandemic caused schools to embrace laptops, tablets, Zoom, and an app called GoGuardian that tracks everything students (and, sometimes, parents) do online.

At Pekin Community High School, the teachers are something close to omniscient. Education, even in-person education, is digital in the Covid-19 era, and staff members use a piece of software to watch everything students do on school-issued laptops and to keep them off banned websites. The kids are aware. “They pretty much know that they’re being monitored 24/7,” says Cynthia Hinderliter, head of technology at the school outside Peoria, Ill.

Still, class clowns persist. Hinderliter pulls up a detailed dashboard of student online activity, which reveals the identities of rule breakers. A yellow “EXPLICIT” label appears beside the name of a youngster who had typed “sexy girls” and “sugar daddy dating” into Google. Other students were searching YouTube for videos of a farming simulation game, guitar tutorials, and, for some reason, nursery rhymes about trucks. Another popular search: “How you bypass GoGuardian,” which is the name of the tracking software Pekin High uses. GoGuardian has been around since 2014, but the pandemic gave educators new reasons to adopt it. The software is quickly becoming almost as commonplace inside American classrooms as standardized tests.