New Types of School Sabotage in Distance Education

By: Some badly educated people

The new Coronavirus pandemic forced school networks around the world to suspend their face-to-face classes and abruptly adopt distance education (DE) regimes. As an emergency measure to keep the education system operating during the lockdown, classes faced numerous material obstacles — starting with the fact that many students do not have internet access at home.

However, at more developed education centers, so-called VLE’s (Virtual Learning Environments) are far from new, even though they are still an auxiliary to face to face activities. With the health emergency, virtual environments were used to replace the school’s physical environment. Classrooms gave way to video conference calls, blackboards were streamed, and desks and tables were replaced by cell phones and computers.

The emergency enforcement of distance education accelerates the productive restructuring process in the field of education, which had already been in progress for some years and is now being realised at a new level. New companies, teaching methodologies, work regimes, surveillance mechanisms, and productivity indicators are now here to stay in this sector. For teachers and other education workers, these changes represent new structures of exploitation, but also open up new possibilities for struggle. [1]

What about students? In addition to the obstacle faced by the poorest families which have no online access, what actions have we seen by young people who manage to log on to the platforms?

Google had to change the Hangouts Meet

Video conferencing software was originally designed to broadcast meetings, but not necessarily classes. This is the case with Google Hangouts Meet, which has suddenly been adopted by schools around the world. Now its conference rooms host millions of classrooms daily.

It turns out that the classroom is not simply a physical structure, but a space overflowing with relationships and conflicts. Students chatting amongst themselves, carried out before through notes or whispers between desks, has now moved onto chats. Along with study, student sabotage has also been relocated to a digital environment.

On March 19, 2020, at the beginning of the lockdown in most Western countries, Google announced a change in its program settings for school accounts:

In educational institutions accounts, only the meeting creator, the calendar event owner, or the person who sets up the meeting on a hardware device in the virtual room can mute or remove participants from the video call. This ensures that students will not be able to mute other people or remove other students or the teacher. This automatic restriction has been applied to all educational institutions accounts since March 19, 2020. [2]

If until March 19th any class participant — student or teacher — had full power to turn off microphones or expel someone from the classroom, we can imagine that the first days of DE were not easy for the authorities of most schools that chose to use Google Hangouts Meet. The company’s statement gives us the scent of a silent wave of large-scale student sabotage.

Wuhan: The App Begs for Pity

Another remarkable case of silent sabotage has been reported in China. Because the new virus spread so quickly there was no going back to school in Wuhan after the Lunar New Year. But the dream of Chinese students having an ever expanding vacation for the duration of the lockdown was thwarted when remote classes were announced. As a result, the DingTalk application became a classroom for 50 million children and young people.

On the night of February 11, the software received an avalanche of 15,000 low ratings. Its grade fell from 4.9 to 1.4. It was a coordinated attack by Wuhan’s students, betting that if the program scored less than 1.0 it would be banned from the Chinese app store. On social media, a post by DingTalk asked for pity: “I’m only five years old, please don’t kill me!”. [3]

Bombing Classes on Zoom

On March 30, the FBI issued a statement warning about instances of “zoombombing” in the USA. [4] Alongside Hangouts Meet, Zoom has been one of the most popular video conferencing apps adopted by schools since the pandemic started — jumping from 10 million users in December 2019 to 200 million in March 2020. However, its gaps in security are clear: any user with the link can enter the room, and the links are easily guessed. [5]

Because this sort of class invasion can be done by anyone, not necessarily students, it seems especially tempting to extreme-rightwing groups and pornography networks. As a simple solution, Zoom advises access passwords, provided only to those registered to the course. The fact that zoombombing cases still continued to occur revealed that it was the students themselves who continued to share links and passwords amongst themselves.

The case of Malissa, a teenager from California, was highlighted by the press. Through her Instagram account, she received and shared Zoom access links with her contacts who were “Only gen Z,” she warned. She posted the links on TikTok — reaching 732 thousand views and 175 thousand likes. Malissa explained to the press that she only did it because “she was bored and wanted to learn.” [6] Her case, however, is just one among many others around the world. A private school teacher in the countryside of the a Brazilian state of São Paulo has reported the appearance of a profile called “clown invasion” in his class. Sometimes it is the students themselves that access the class from different devices in order to cause trouble.

From Jokes to Proletarian Revolution

From taking naps to messing around, students have always put obstacles in the way of the school’s production process. If the school arose in the context of the industrial revolution to produce a workforce, student insubordination translates into a refusal to do the work needed to create the commodity labor power.

At a time when work is losing its classic form, formal education also seems to be obsolete. In São Paulo’s state education system, in which many of the schools already act mainly as prisons — a repository of young people — and not for their education, it is natural that Distance Education has turned out to be just a cover. While a good part of the students can’t even connect to the internet, the eighty thousand who watch live from EduTubers have access to only one chat in real time in which they play games and post all kinds of strange content. In this case, sabotage is already part of the game, the show must go on. The most dedicated, connected, and resilient will learn: the selection mechanism continues to operate.

This student rebellion, by itself, may not be aimed towards any valid goal. As Malissa explained, it’s just a joke. And its immediate effect, most of the time, is to give headaches — and more work — to teachers and other school staff workers. At the same time, it is through this insubordination that students maintain a margin of autonomy. And it is precisely in this space of action outside the control of the school authorities that the possibilities for political confrontation resides, such as the wave of school occupations across Brazil in 2015-16.

It is worth considering the implications of the two boys who, according to a report in a Spanish tabloid, reportedly went to their teacher’s house to cut the fiber optic cables to prevent her from teaching online. Who knows if next time — during a strike, perhaps? — the next target will be the school’s central server. [7]

[1] In Brazil, we recommend the Quarantine Diaries, a series of reports of work in times of pandemic produced by Voz Rouca, an autonomous bulletin organized by private and public education workers. Available at: <https://passapalavra.info/2020/04/130766/>.
[2] <https://support.google.com/edu/classroom/answer/9784550?hl=pt-BR>.
[3] The person who observed the attack on DingTalk was Wang Xiuying writing in the London Review of Book. See here: <https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/9/21171495/wuhan-students-dingtalk-hooky-nyc-columbia-princeton-app-store-reviews>and <https://www.businessinsider.com/students-wuhan-remote-classes-dingtalk-app-store-reviews-2020-3>.
[4] <https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/boston/news/press-releases/fbi-warns-of-teleconferencing-and-online-classroom-hijacking-during-covid-19-pandemic>.
[5] “But how could someone just ‘drop into’ a private meeting? ‘Zoombombing is nothing more than enumerating different URL combinations in the browser,’; says Dan Desko, a cybersecurity expert from accounting firm Schneider Downs, in Columbus, Ohio. He gives an example: To find a Zoom meeting, you enter the URL Zoom.us/ plus a string of numbers, which serves as the meeting identification number (e.g., https://zoom.us/j/55555523222)”. In: <https://computer.howstuffworks.com/zoom-bombing.htm>.
[7] The news, published in El Mira, looks like click bait: fake news produced to increase hits. <https://elmira.es/05/05/2020/dos-ninos-cortan-internet-de-la-casa-de-la-maestra-para-que-no-mande-mas-tarea/>; we quoted it anyway, because it is still a possibility that distance education opens up to the imagination.

One thought on “New Types of School Sabotage in Distance Education

  1. Re. the last paragraph: “It is worth considering the implications of the two boys who, according to a report in a Spanish tabloid, reportedly went to their teacher’s house to cut the fiber optic cables to prevent her from teaching online. Who knows if next time — during a strike, perhaps? — the next target will be the school’s central server.”

    In fact, over 2 years ago in Montpellier at the Faculty of Letters, about 30 masked students sabotaged the administration’s internet site (including smashing up machines) during the blockade and part-time occupation of the campus. The site stopped functioning for about 36 hours. This action was in response to the admin’s decision to organise exams via the internet, and was followed by about 200 personnel & professors, utterly identifying with their alienated labour, demonstrating against this sabotage, though amongst radical students it was popular, obviously. When the site came back up the admin said that no data was lost, but several students suspected that this was them trying to put up a good front, that it was not true. But maybe this was wishful thinking on the part of the students – nobody knows for sure.
    See this – https://dialectical-delinquents.com/2013-a-to-z-of-some-moments-of-international-opposition/f/france/yet-another-boring-leaflet/#sdendnote11sym

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