How Do Educators Feel About the Student Privacy Debate? From the Floor of ISTE 2015

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With more than 20,000 educators in attendance, ISTE offers a great opportunity to gauge how teachers truly feel about contentious issues making the headlines. Last year we asked how they felt about the Common Core standards.

This year, major media outlets highlighted concerns over student data privacy. How are education technology companies accessing and sharing student data? Are there loopholes and shady practices that teachers ought to be worried about?

This year, we asked nine educators—from district and school administrators to teachers and edtech coaches—about their thoughts on the privacy debate, how schools are handling it, and whether there's a real cause for concern.

Is data collection that big of a deal? Not if you give consent

The “Big Brother is watching” fear wasn’t commonly shared among the educators we talked to. But if Big Brother is indeed watching, that’s because educators are allowing him to. Younger teachers say they are aware of the risk of putting information online. “I'm a young teacher, and I would venture to think that this change in concern is generational,” shares Emmanuel Andre, a Owings Mills High School Staff Development Teacher in his early 30s. "Back in the day, we gave all this information to sketchy companies like Facebook, and we might just be more comfortable with data being online than past generations were."

MJ Linane, a high school teacher from Massachusetts, agrees on that point. "For me personally, I have a location tracker turned on on my phone. I chose to give this data to use these tools, so I see it as a trade-off," he says. He adds that in this day and age, a lot of student data is likely already online anyway: “If we were dealing with medical history, that would be one thing. But the things these companies ask for—name and school email address, for example—it’s nothing that couldn't be found in some public record.”

If it makes helpful edtech products...

Companies also value student data because it offers feedback on whether their tools are effective—and how they can improve. And the teachers we talked to expressed support for the use of student data if it helps create more user-friendly and effective tools. "If I were a parent, sure I might be a little nervous. But if companies want data to build better products, as a teacher, I say thank you," Andre shares.

Educators also appreciate when companies take the initiative in communicating their commitment to safeguarding student privacy. Take Google, for example, which was criticized one year ago for scanning the content of students’ emails. The company has since clarified its policy and convinced some Google is living up to its “Don’t Be Evil” motto. Chris Lehmann, founding principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, gives kudos to Google for the work they've done: "I'm proud of Google for the stance they've taken on student privacy."

“I think companies are generally working hard to respect privacy,” explains Kerry Gallagher, Technology Integration Specialist at St. John's Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts. “Sure, there are always exceptions. But with intelligent discussion that includes analyzing the benefits of using data to personalize instruction, we can find the right balance.”

Just have good practices--and district efforts are spreading

Throughout his twelve years at Science Leadership Academy, Lehmann has come to adopt a mantra when it comes to working with companies that handle student data: “Trust, but verify,” meaning trust that the companies have good intentions, but make sure their privacy practices are up to your standards.

Several administrators shared best practices around safeguarding data security that their districts have developed. Vincent Scheivert, CIO at Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, says teachers are free and willing to pick their own tools, but not before they first fill out a privacy checklist to get it approved.

“Teachers must answer yes/no questions about a number of things, like if they have read the privacy statement for the tool. They also provide links to the terms and conditions, and get permission from every parent,” he explains. These practices have helped his colleagues know exactly what data is getting shared. “If something is approved, it’s on the list for one year. If something’s denied, it's off the list for one year. That means if those tools get better, they could theoretically make it onto the list next year.”

Kecia Ray, who served as Executive Director of Learning Technology and Library Services for the Metropolitan Nashville Public School District from 2010 to 2015, said she opened up a staff position entirely dedicated to monitoring all company contracts “in order to cover us for data privacy.”

It’s not just up to administrators to make sure companies are playing by the rules. Jhone Ebert of the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, NV says her team holds training sessions for school librarians so that they can vet products for their privacy standards.

Don't forget to train the teachers

Some of the classroom teachers we spoke to did not feel as comfortable with their own abilities to grade a company on its privacy standards—despite the fact that they sometimes have the freedom to choose what products to use in the classroom.

According to Chris Nesi, a social studies teacher in New Jersey and host of the House of #Edtech podcast, "When it comes to determining how safe something is to use, it’s the responsibility of the administrators. But teachers and administrators both have to take better care of themselves." Linane also shares his concerns: “All these companies are marketing to teachers, but we have no training on privacy," he says, "and yet with FERPA laws, I'm still responsible if something bad happens."

Both Nesi and Gallagher expressed a keen belief in that teachers need to have a voice in the privacy conversation—not just to learn how to be better informed, but also to have a say on any privacy policy and legislation that is proposed.

“I am nervous that strict regulations could unintentionally restrain student and teacher creativity with these tools,” Gallagher says. “It's just important that educators are part of the discussion along with edtech companies, parents and policy makers.”

Discussions about the use of student data in school is far from over, but one thing is certain: if ISTE is any indication, teachers are more than willing to be brought into these conversations— as they should be.

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