Harry Brink, 17, who use Schoolbox. Photo: Peter Rae

Sydney schools are employing “big brother” data collection technology to track whether students are finishing their homework, skipping classes as well as how much their parents are likely to donate.

This week it was revealed that 34 schools in NSW – including The King’s School and Barker College –  were using software that allowed them to track how much parents were likely to donate based on the amount and type of emails they sent, the wealth of the suburb they live in, their volunteering efforts, and community involvement.

The digital footprint of the state’s pupils is making the twice a year report card look out of date.

Ben Heuston and Isobel Clift, 13, from Willoughby, who uses LearningField.Ben Heuston and Isobel Clift, 13, from Willoughby, who uses LearningField. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Among the data collection technology at the fore is LearningField, which is being used by 48 schools in Australia including Newington in Sydney’s inner west and Queenwood on the north shore.

Every time a student opens a textbook on their tablet or laptop in the digital textbook library, their school and teachers are able to track their movements.

The technology works through tracing their interaction with the device on the screen or the cursor, highlighting colour coded passages that denote how long a student has engaged with particular chapters or passages.

“We can’t tell if they have actually understood the content, but we can certainly say they have engaged with it,” LearningField director Ben Heuston said.

For those students who are found to be more advanced or those who are struggling, it allows the class to be divided – so that some students can look at other passages in the program’s 10,000 textbook library while others do remedial work.

The program creates a mountain of data on how, when and where different types books are being read not only for schools, teachers, and pupils, but for text book publishers – an industry worth about $620 million in Australia.

At the same time administration programs such as Skoolbag and Schoolbox are becoming more sophisticated.

“They are the solution to the endless amounts of excursions slips buried in the bottoms of bags,” Skoolbag partner Andrew Tsousis said.

Calendars, cancellations, school notices, school information, school timetables, parent sick note forms and school documents are all digitised, their data kept so that a student’s attendance or lack thereof can be mapped and patterns drawn out of it.

As the technology develops, the Australian Council For Educational Research, is working with a team from the University of Sydney on rolling out a system that will capture all the data from disparate apps, including NAPLAN results.

Michael Timms from ACER said the system will bring the data together into a usable form that is able to put up red flags to help spot struggling students showing information that could otherwise go unnoticed, like a student missing one set of homework in each class every couple of days and not attending their football training for a week.

“Right now individual teachers might not spot a student struggling in one class if they only see them a couple of times a week,” Dr Timms said. “With all the data on attendance, homework and activities, patterns will begin to emerge as a predictor of how a student is travelling and students will be picked up a lot earlier”.

But there remain concerns over just how schools will keep all this data secure.

The privacy commission has repeatedly warned of the dangers of inappropriate disclosure of the mountains of data being collected.

Civil Liberties Australia has called on school authorities throughout Australia to undertake proper privacy and security assessments.

“We support proper use of new technology, but this development has inherent dangers which should be evaluated by schools, their governing bodies, and parents,” a spokesman said.