Students Are Online Like Never Before. What Does That Mean for Their...

Data Privacy

Students Are Online Like Never Before. What Does That Mean for Their Privacy?

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Oct 27, 2020

Students Are Online Like Never Before. What Does That Mean for Their Privacy?

Technology is enabling learning like never before, with millions of students attending school remotely for some or all of their regular instruction this fall.

With this skyrocketing growth in technology use, however, comes greater concerns around student privacy. Which technologies are collecting student data? How is that data being used? Who has access to it? And how long is it kept?

These questions have been circulating for years, as schools have increasingly embraced technology to aid in learning. But now, with entire school systems using technology as a means to access learning, those questions are growing in volume and urgency. And oftentimes, they’re coming from parties that have not typically had a voice in this conversation: parents, teachers and students themselves.

The nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), hoping to understand how these groups perceive issues surrounding privacy and technology, conducted surveys and focus groups from May to August of this year. The results offer an “unprecedented look at data privacy,” said Adam Burns, chief operating officer at Edge Research, which conducted the surveys.

Among the key findings: K-12 teachers and parents have apparently not been deterred by the hurried transition to digital learning during the pandemic. For both groups, 76 percent support increased levels of online learning even after students return to school full time. Nearly twice as many teachers (86 percent) now say technology is “very important” in education, up from 44 percent before the pandemic.

“Candidly, this was not something we expected to see,” said Elizabeth Laird, senior fellow on student privacy at the CDT, during an online event with education reporters. “Our takeaway from this is that, in spite of these challenges, parents and teachers really do see value in online learning. And the task ahead is to figure out how to do it responsibly, how to protect students' privacy, and make sure they're not subject to some of the security incidents that we've seen.”

While 86 percent of teachers said they had expanded their technology use since the pandemic began, including about 20 percent who said they use a technology that has not been approved by their school or district, less than half of teachers reported receiving training around student privacy or related to new tools such as video conferencing.

One of the greatest concerns around increased technology use in schools—especially technology use that is not paired with adequate implementation and professional development—is the fear that the technology will track and surveil students in ways they and their families aren’t even aware of. Perhaps students’ mindless posts on social media are actually being watched and recorded by their school district, and then shared with law enforcement or other authorities when the language raises an alarm. Maybe their district-issued device is, unbeknownst to the student, recording the happenings from inside of their homes before class even begins.

Such incidents disproportionately harm students who are already vulnerable, such as students with disabilities, students of color, LGBTQ students, English language learners and students who are undocumented or whose families are undocumented, Laird noted. Those students may also be subject to bias and profiling that is sometimes inadvertently baked into the technology they use.

Despite educators’ and parents’ enthusiasm for technology, about one in three report feeling more concerned about student privacy since the arrival of the pandemic last spring. And although privacy is not a top priority for parents, students or teachers, most do consider it a concern.

“Privacy as a whole, for my children, has never really been at the top of my list—until I'm confronted with it,” said Beatriz Beckford, a parent in Chicago and national director of MomsRising, a grassroots organization that advocates for issues affecting children and families.

But that might be different, she said, if she were empowered with information by her children’s teachers and school leaders.

“I wouldn’t say I’m super versed on the best practices for preventing Zoom bombing and things of that nature. I think it'd be really helpful for school districts to kind of steward teachers and be able to help facilitate that for families because, you know, the way that my son, as a 12-year-old, navigates online spaces is very different than the way my kindergartener does. I think there are some supports that school districts and particularly schools can offer in navigating the digital space.”

A Push for Privacy and Equity

With many schools now recording student health data, through methods such as contact tracing apps, thermal imaging, temperature checks and more, privacy risks are further heightened.

The concerns for students and families have become so great that a broad coalition—representing groups that promote and advocate for privacy, mental health, civil liberties, parents, children’s rights and more—signed on to a document, released Tuesday, outlining 10 principles for student data privacy and equity that they believe should guide education during the pandemic.

The 10 principles include addressing students’ compounded trauma during the COVID-19 crisis; ensuring technology and data use are evidence-based; collecting only the necessary health data and using, sharing and retaining it for the minimum extent required by law; creating data governance policies; being transparent about how technology is used, what data is recorded and how students are evaluated during virtual learning; and involving students and families in school reopening decisions.

During a virtual press conference with reporters on Monday, leaders from the National Education Association, Southern Poverty Law Center, Future of Privacy Forum, National Parent Teacher Association and others explained why they had signed on to the principles, many of them emphasizing the idea that there is no “either/or” around learning, privacy and equity.

“We can be promoting safe learning environments and promoting equity and student data privacy,” noted Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of School Psychologists.

“We can and must do both,” said Bacardi Jackson, managing attorney for children’s rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Now we need technology more than ever to keep our students learning through this COVID-19 pandemic. But we must be vigilant and make sure it is not harming them.”

She added: “Schools must only collect the data that’s really, truly necessary. They should use that data to support and not to penalize students.”

Jackson and others expressed that schools should be offering support and guidance right now—through social-emotional learning, mental and behavioral health resources and counseling—rather than rushing to discipline or punish students. This is especially relevant, one of the leaders said, when students leave their cameras turned off during remote learning or do not show up to class, which more often indicates that they are struggling than that they are apathetic.

Not dissimilar to the CDT’s efforts to bring parents into the conversation about student privacy—especially as parents have experienced a more hands-on role in their children’s education this year—Jackson expressed that the 10 principles may be a way to ease parents into this discussion.

“In addition to working at the SPLC, I am also a mother,” Jackson noted. “I have not yet seen anyone having the conversation about privacy concerns [at my child’s school]. These principles can open the door to that conversation, and provide a map for what kinds of issues to raise with children and parents.”

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