In the halls of Yuzhou No. 1 High School in central China, students refer to them as “the cameras.”
When the first bell sounds before 7 a.m., their fish-eye lenses spring to life, broadcasting live as students sit at their desks and measure geometric angles, pass notes or doze during breaks. Before long, thousands of people — not just parents and teachers — are watching online, offering armchair commentary.
“This one is playing with his phone!” added another, posting a screenshot.
As internet speeds have improved, live-streaming has become a cultural phenomenon in China, transforming online entertainment and everyday rituals such as dating and dining. Now the nation’s obsession with live video is invading its schools, and not everyone is happy about it.
Thousands of schools — public and private, from kindergarten to college — are installing webcams in classrooms and streaming live on websites that are open to the public, betting that round-the-clock supervision, even from strangers, will help motivate students.
“I hate it,” said Ding Yue, 17, a senior at Yuzhou No. 1 High, in Xuchang, a city in Henan province. “I feel like we are zoo animals.”
Some experts warn that live-streaming in schools will make Chinese youngsters, already accustomed to the nation’s extensive internet censorship and use of outdoor security cameras, even more sensitive to surveillance.
“If classrooms are under surveillance at all times, instruction will definitely be influenced by outside factors and the opinions of whoever is watching,” said Xiong Bingqi, vice president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, an influential Chinese think tank, who called the practice a violation of students’ rights and a threat to academic freedom.
After a critical article on the subject recently in The Beijing News, a prominent newspaper, officials at several schools said they were ending the broadcasts. But thousands of others chose to remain online and continue to draw a daily audience of cyber class monitors eager to report daydreaming students and lax teachers.
Thousands of feeds
There are dozens of live-streaming platforms in China, and classroom feeds can be found on many of them. Anyone with an internet connection can visit and choose from thousands of live school feeds. The most popular site may be Shuidi, owned by internet-security giant Qihoo 360 Technology, which sells webcams and software, among other products.
“When you tell them, ‘It’s possible your parents might be behind your back watching,’ it’s like a sword hanging over their heads,” said Zhao Weifeng, director of a private school in the eastern province of Jiangsu that installed cameras in its classrooms last year. “Having surveillance makes children behave better.”
The Deep Blue Children Robot Center, a network of technology-enrichment programs based in Beijing, said it had made live-streaming a central part of its teaching model.
“A noble person shouldn’t have anything to hide,” said Jiang Jifa, a computer scientist and co-founder of the network. “Everyone needs to be able to pose onstage, to run for office, to receive attention from the country and the world.”
In China’s cutthroat education system, live-streaming has also found evangelists among GPA-obsessed parents looking for new ways to push their children, and schools eager to improve academic performance.
“It helps students spend their time more efficiently and get into their dream universities,” a parent of a senior at Yuzhou No. 1 High wrote recently in an online forum.
Webcams have proved especially popular at rural boarding schools, where teachers say live-streaming can be a vital link between children and parents, often migrant workers toiling in cities hundreds of miles away.
China is not the first to use internet-enabled cameras inside classrooms. Private schools and charter schools in the United States have in recent years experimented with private, closed-circuit broadcasts to deter crime and misbehavior. Britain is testing body cameras for teachers, in part to gather evidence for student disciplinary hearings.
What about privacy?
Critics say Chinese schools have adopted live-streaming technology on an unheard-of scale and with few of the privacy protections in place elsewhere.
Deng Xu, whose daughter attends an elite preschool in Beijing, said she understood the desire to keep an eye on children and their teachers at school, especially when they are very young. But she said that at some point, parents had to let go.
“It’s just sad to be watched all the time,” she said. “Parents need to learn to be hands-off.”
Han Xiao, a lawyer in Beijing who has spoken out against live-streaming in classrooms, said that many schools were operating the cameras without the consent of parents and students and that public broadcasts posed a threat to student safety.
“Classrooms are enclosed spaces, so the activities of students like reading and eating snacks should be regarded as private,” he said. “Living under surveillance and fear will hurt students’ potential to grow.”
Qihoo 360’s cameras are advertised as tools for deterring thieves and monitoring young children at home. The company said it had not targeted schools for sales. It added that it had not received complaints about privacy and that individuals initiating live-streams must agree to respect the privacy of others.
“Many schools and teachers willingly bought and installed our devices and choose to share the footage voluntarily,” the company said in a statement.
Live-streaming in general is on the cutting edge of entertainment in China, making stars of ordinary people as they use their phones to broadcast meals, candid monologues on the meaning of life, and tutorials on subjects such as applying makeup and rebuilding cars.
The industry more than doubled in size in 2016 and is expected to generate $5 billion in revenue this year, largely through the sale of virtual gifts, according to Credit Suisse. But it has proved difficult for the Chinese government to regulate.
Authorities issued guidelines last fall that banned pornography and original news reporting on live-streaming channels. The rules recognized a general right to privacy, but did not address the use of live-streaming in schools.
At Yuzhou No. 1 High, which began live-streaming classes last year, students now joke that their school should instead be called “Yuzhou No. 1 Prison.”
Reached by telephone, several said they were uncomfortable that anyone with an internet connection could tune into their classroom discussions. To avoid the camera’s stare, they sometimes congregate in a blind spot near the front of the classroom, they said.
“Who knows if there are any psychopaths watching?” asked Li Li, a junior.
The school did not respond to a request for comment.
Ding Yue, the senior, said live-streaming had also contributed to bullying at the school, recalling how a student was teased after classmates read that an online commenter had made fun of his looks.
“Most students want to speak and fend for themselves, but we don’t have the power,” he said, when asked if students had complained to the school. “It’s the business of grown-ups. We aren’t allowed to talk about it.”