What Do Teachers Know About Student Privacy? Not Enough, Researchers Say

What Do Teachers Know About Student Privacy? Not Enough, Researchers Say

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Oct 8, 2021

What Do Teachers Know About Student Privacy? Not Enough, Researchers Say
Courtesy of the Future of Privacy Forum

What should teachers be expected to know about student data privacy and ethics?

Considering so much of their jobs now revolve around student data, it’s a simple enough question—and one that researcher Ellen B. Mandinach and a colleague were tasked with answering. More specifically, they wanted to know what state guidelines had to say on the matter. Was that information included in codes of education ethics? Or perhaps in curriculum requirements for teacher training programs?

“The answer is, ‘Not really,’” says Mandinach, a senior research scientist at the nonprofit WestEd. “Very few state standards have anything about protecting privacy, or even much about data,” she says, aside from policies touching on FERPA or disposing of data properly.

While it seems to Mandinach that institutions have historically played hot potato over who is responsible for teaching educators about data privacy, the pandemic and its supercharged push to digital learning have brought new awareness to the issue.

The application of data ethics has real consequences for students, says Mandinach, like an Atlanta sixth grader who was accused of “Zoombombing” based on his computer’s IP address or the Dartmouth students who were exonerated from cheating accusations.

“There are many examples coming up as we’re in this uncharted territory, particularly as we’re virtual,” Mandinach says. “Our goal is to provide resources and awareness building to the education community and professional organization...so [these tools] can be broadly used to help better prepare educators, both current and future.”

This week, Mandinach and her partners at the Future of Privacy Forum released two training resources for K-12 teachers: the Student Privacy Primer and a guide to working through data ethics scenarios. The curriculum is based on their report examining how much data privacy and ethics preparation teachers receive while in college.

Juliana Cotto, a policy council at the Future of Privacy Forum, says the training tools show teachers how student data privacy and ethics issues arise in their day to day work. As a former classroom teacher, Cotto recalls that her own privacy training came down to a one-hour seminar on FERPA, which governs how student data can be released and displayed.

“We get into, at the beginning of the report, the unique role educators have in protecting student privacy,” Cotto says. “What is privacy? What are ethical and responsible uses of data? Here are 99 examples of what this means and how it can come out.”

Thinking Through the Problems

The scenarios cover themes that have emerged in the digital age, including responding to witnessing student cyberbullying on social media or handling misbehavior by a student during virtual classes. But they also prompt teachers to think about more analog handling of student data, like when disposing of tests with students' grades on them or when they suspect a student has come to class with a contagious illness.

Mandinach says the curriculum, piloted at five universities, was designed so that any professor can use out-of-the-box regardless of their own data privacy expertise.

Cheryl Forbes, director of Teacher Education at the University of California San Diego, says about 60 graduate students in her department piloted the curriculum during the spring semester. They ranged from students who were early in the teacher training program to those who were already at the head of a classroom.

Teacher interns especially lauded the program, she says, because they were already living the scenarios presented for discussion.

“It really called upon the participants to have to take a stand and say, ‘This is what I would do,’” Forbes says.

Very little teacher education dealt with student privacy before the pandemic, Forbes says, when Zoom brought school into students’ homes and made issues like child abuse more visible. Before that, discussions about privacy and ethics could be limited to a mentor giving teaching interns advice like, “Don’t talk about your students at the grocery store.”

One scenario in the curriculum focused on what a teacher should do after noticing a student on Zoom playing with a toy gun. In fact, Forbes says, a similar situation occurred at one of her student teacher’s schools. The school called the police after a teacher reported that a gun was visible over Zoom in a student’s home.

“That really did bring forth one of the best discussions that we had because students were talking about how different communities differentially experience police,” Forbes recalls. “This is a Latinx community, and you’re calling police to the kid’s house? What could go wrong? Students had a variety of [responses].”

Moving the Discussion Forward

With the curricular guides, Cotto says researchers are trying to move the conversation from simply complying with privacy laws to what’s best for students.

“A lot of the time, legal compliance falls short. It’s very much the floor. We really need to think about best practices that go beyond that,” Cotto says.

Mandinach realized the information was also applicable to teachers already in the classroom. After their initial look at the data ethics landscape, researchers determined that everyone at a school who is hands-on with data—be they a data clerk, counselor, administrator and even up to school board members—should have more than a surface-level knowledge of privacy.

“My position on this, and it's one of the recommendations, is that every educator hired by a school district, during onboarding, should have some sort of training in not just FERPA 101 or privacy 101,” Mandinach says, “but on data privacy and data ethics more generally.”

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