Guest Opinion

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Somebody's watching

After reporting on countless school board meetings in Iowa, I have long ago concluded that there's nothing more fantastically disturbing than an a really angry mother, a mom on a mission.

Put me in a room with a dead-broke meth addict who hasn't had a snort for 72 hours before sending me to dutifully record the protestations of the mad moms.

This is not just the observation of a veteran ink spiller.

Anyone who has ever covered a school board session past, say, the consent agenda, can tell you that the truly involved parents are people to keep away from sharp objects...

That's much more true now than ever as the soccer mom has graduated to a new title: "helicopter mom."

This is the kind of parent who is so involved in a kid's life that she is literally hovering over at all times.

Back in the 1980s, when, thankfully, you still could buy cigarettes from machines in remote hallways of local motels, and we remarkably had a convenience-store clerk in Sac County bamboozled into believing that Milwaukee's Best was an NA beer, my friends, honor students, jocks and ne'er-do-wells all, used to at times worry about what our mothers would think if they only could see us now - now often being a gravel road outside of town.

Today, thanks to virtual reality this is a reality. They actually can monitor you at all times.

Moms can be everywhere. On the cell phone. There with the instant messages. And soon, in the School District, right there every night logging on to a PowerSchool program on the Web and finding out how a kid did on a quiz, what the homework assignment is for the evening and who had bad breath during homeroom.

Whatever happened to the 1970s when a mother would just tell her kids to go kick cans around the neighborhood so she could drink a Tab and watch "Sanford and Son" in some peace?

I'll tell you. Redd Foxx is dead and done gone to his Elizabeth. I haven't seen Tab in a store since the Reagan administration, and there's just too much information for moms to even think about a breather in 2004.

With the plucky PowerSchool program, teachers can input all the data they want, whenever they want, giving parents a real-time, on-line, never-ending parent-teacher conference. It's stunning and brilliant and will undoubtedly dramatically change education forever.

And at first blush, yeah, I kind of have to be for it. You know, for the kids and progress and being up to date and competing against the South Koreans who, we were told at Rotary Club Monday, have Internet connections 200 times faster than ours.

Embracing technology can be gut-wrenching in many respects.

As someone who misspent so much of his youth in detention

that I think I earned college credits for it, this unfettered access, this digital red carpet for parents, strikes me in much the same way the Book of Revelation did.

There's more.

We all know about schools that place cameras in their buses. I'd say it would be easier to just ban trenchcoats, but we all have our pet theories on school violence, don't we.

The next step is so logical that it makes you wish you thought of the idea, and started up this dotcom, WatchMeGrow.com.

Since 1996 this Lacey, Wash., company has been providing remote viewing systems to parents with kids in childcare.

The guilty working mom, and theoretically, dad, can log on to their computers any time and watch a live video feed of the day-care center.

"You'd be amazed at the feedback we get," WatchMeGrow's general manager John Lewison told me.

For its nine-year existence, which makes this company an ancient blue-chipper in the dot.com world, WatchMeGrow has dealt with childcare.

But a few months ago the company wired its first school, a private school operation near Oakland, Calif.

Just as with childcare, parents can log on to a Web site - with special passwords and other security measures in place - and watch little Dylan play with blocks, pull some girl's hair or do whatever it is kids do in kindergarten these days.

School districts conceivably could wire all classrooms and allow parents of students of any age, K-12, to log on to their computers and listen to lectures and watch classroom dynamics.

"If the demand is there we'll be happy to provide the solution," Lewison said. It wouldn't even cost that much.

Lewison, a swell source, told me at the end of the interview that he hoped I didn't write a "Big Brother" story, a screed on the creep of cameras into our lives.

That's my instinct. But, apologies to George Orwell considered, in the end, Lewison and WatchMeGrow are bringing more choices to the private schools and daycares, and opening the possibility that the doors of the public school can be thrown completely wide-open to parents.

Sunshine, as we say in the media, is the greatest disinfectant.

Many teachers will see those cameras as encroaching into their sovereign territory, the classroom. They have enough trouble with meddling parents without being the newest "reality show."

But if getting nightly updates from teachers through PowerSchool makes education superior, then shouldn't a technology of near total immersion take school-to-home communication past its current summit?

I don't like the idea of being watched all day. Then again, I despise cell phones, this sense of being wired to everybody else and so many of the trappings of the "Now Generation."

But that's the point. I am not of this the millennium generation, the demographic also known as the Echo Boomers, the kids born to the Baby Boomers. They see the world so much differently. Like me, most of you reading this aren't part of that generation, either. That means some unimagined changes can and must occur.

And you can be sure, someone will be watching, and probably in real-time over the Net.

* Douglas Burns is a columnist for the Carroll Daily Times Herald, and a contributor to the Pilot-Tribune.