When you pack your children off to school in the morning, you’re probably worried about a few things. Gym kit? Instrument? Did they actually do that homework? Oh, and have you safeguarded their online identity and personal data?
Online data protection and privacy is an important topic that many adults aren’t completely versed upon. You would hope that schools have a solid grasp upon data protection best practices. After all, they’re no longer just stopping a lunchtime fight. Teachers are now faced with protecting the masses of digital information created in the schooling environment, and the inherent dangers that brings.
So, are schools up to scratch? Are they capable of protecting your child’s identity? Let’s take a look.
Why Is There So Much Classroom Tech?
Technology has made some aspects of schooling much easier. The internet allows a parent or teacher to share the wonders of the world, with a click of a button.
Data collection in school isn’t as constant as you would expect (at least in some schools). However, they’re teaching, examining, and monitoring the children all the time. And increasingly, children are using school/government issued laptops and tablets to complete these tasks.
A 2014 study found one-third of K-12 students in the U.S. use a school-issued device. As well as this, a quarter of elementary grade students use school-issued devices. Additionally, kids are using school administered educational cloud services, in and out of school. Parents are using those same cloud services to check-in on their children, their learning progression, and their teacher feedback.
The same report found devices are used for:
- Accessing class information through an online portal (75 percent of high schoolers, 68 percent of middle schoolers, and 31 percent of grade 3-5 students)
- Taking tests online (52 percent of high schoolers, 47 percent of middle schoolers, 44 percent of grade 3-5 students)
- Using online textbooks (37 percent of high schoolers, 32 percent of middle schoolers, 14 percent of grade 3-5 students)
- Watching teacher-created videos (22 percent of high schoolers, 22 percent of middle schoolers, 14 percent of grade 3-5 students)
The shift to digital is being embraced by schools. But it has mixed reviews with parents concerned that their children no longer use their imagination… or even have to remember information. If the tablet is in hand, why bother remembering factual data? (This is an interesting argument. Once we are hyper-digitized networked beings that can call data within seconds using integrated computing, why bother learning anything ever?)
Speaking of data, what happens to the data points collected and compiled on your child?
Technology Begets Data
Where there is technology, there is data. In 2016, the Electronic Frontier Foundation conducted a large study, focused on education-tech. They found:
- Lack of transparency — Schools issue devices to students without informing parents. In addition, parents aren’t detailed on exactly what apps are required, how they’ll be used, and their data collection.
- Data concern — Many parents raised concerns about student data collection practices. The study found data collection practices lacked encryption, as well as proper data retention and data sharing policies.
- Burden — The lack of communication creates an undue burden on parents to seek information from the school administration.
- Choice — There were a startling lack of options for parents that wish to opt-out of ed-tech schemes, including those in-class. In addition to the lack of options, there is also a serious lack of informative resources to help make those decisions, and provide alternatives.
- “Privacy by policy” — Knowledge of best privacy practices isn’t directed by the school. Instead, administrators and schools generally rely on ed-tech companies to direct privacy. In turn, schools are unable to adequately communicate privacy and data policy to parents and students.
- Training — Across the board, teachers, principals, administrators, and even students voiced a desire for more and better training in privacy-conscious technology use.
Most Data-Minable Industry
Some of these are startlingly familiar with other walks of life. The final point is especially poignant: education is the key to better security. It is certainly one of the single most important methods for ensuring child data protection. Educators face major difficulties in the trade-off between improving services through useful data collection, and restricting third-parties that view educational technology as “the world’s most data-mineable industry by far.”
The focus on big data to create profiles, streamline services, and correlate behaviors has some parents (and privacy advocates) worried. In that sense, child data protection practice gains definition by considering wider surveillance practices. In a world where surveillance is increasingly de rigueur, constant observation and data capturing, even for children, is becoming normalized.
Hence a 2015 Future of Privacy Forum survey on digital student privacy issues finding 87 percent of parents “worry about student data being hacked or stolen.” A further 68 percent worry “that an electronic record would be used in the future against their child by a college or an employer.”
Big Data and the Law
Big data was the buzzword of 2014. There’s a lot of data, it is being collected, and someone is going make use of it. The concept hasn’t changed in 2017, and schools are creating more data than ever. Yet laws such as COPPA and FERPA aren’t entirely up to scratch (FERPA was introduced in 1974, long before digital records and data collection, and has been watered-down in recent years), as well as being jargon-ridden. They don’t make it easy for parents to understand, that’s for sure. I’m not convinced they make it easy for teachers or principals, either.
What does it mean, then, for concerned parents? Well, it is time to ask questions, and explore exactly what is going on at your school. This includes examining the school information system. The FTC makes one thing very clear:
“[Data collection within a school] is limited to the educational context—where an operator collects personal information from students for the use and benefit of the school, and for no other commercial purpose.”
Now, consider the following points.
The school keeps consistent digital records. Find out exactly who has physical and remote access to them. Ask your school administration to detail their protection practices and procedures.
If you find any bit of it — their security or the individuals or organizations with access to data — unsettling, don’t be afraid to query it.
At times, schools release their directory information to third-parties (from someone in the U.K., this is utterly ridiculous). However, the FERPA law gives parents and guardians the right to opt-out of any third-party data disclosures the school partakes in.
Make the request in writing, keep a copy, as well as any other correspondence.
Remember, the directory contains a significant amount of identifying information. In the wrong hands, it is a powerful tool.
This somewhat ties into School Records, but requires its own section. Schools have never excelled at data security. Consequently, there are too many individuals operating technology for data to remain secure. That said, they are getting much better; they had to, really.
Talk directly to the school about their data breach practices: how they react, how they’ll communicate with you, their mitigation practices, and more. In this day and age, a school needs a robust plan in practice. Again, if you’re not happy, query it.
If you’re worried about the school, their data practices, and their overall approach to your children’s data, you can make a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education. Contact the Family Compliance Office, and explain your worries. They’ll take your case seriously.
Protect That Data
Have you used PowerSchool? The school information system, created by Pearson, holds data on 32 million individual U.S. K-12 students.
This isn’t tin-foil time — they’re the number one educational user-community in the U.S. today. Their “Unified Classroom” technology is extremely popular. It offers teachers, students, and parents access to a single learning portal, complete with homework, feedback, and other tools. Its popularity is understandable, and they keep growing.
How about if I tell you that Pearson sold PowerSchool, and the millions of student records, to private equity firm Vista Equity Partners in a deal worth $350 million?
Now, despite initially refusing, PowerSchool has now signed the Student Privacy Pledge, along with over 300 other ed-tech providers. But the threat to student privacy remains, even with safeguards in place. In a multi-billion dollar industry attracting investment from huge equity firms, how long will student data remain free of commercialization. Furthermore, what if the service policies change? Will schools be able to simply step away from a service they no longer trust/desire to use?
Mathematician, and author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Cathy O’Neil believes that process is already underway. In 2015, O’Neil told The Intercept that “We’re giving a persistence score as young as age seven — that is, how easily do you give up or do you keep trying? Once you track this and attach this to [a child’s] name, the persistence score will be there somewhere.” Her worries aren’t simply how predictive and behavioral analysis will be used right now, but the application of that data at a later date.
After all, how often do you hear that data is really deleted? Answer: you don’t, because it isn’t.
Tech Is Here to Stay
The technology isn’t going to leave your kids classroom any time soon. But you can create a meaningful dialogue with the school about their data protection practices. I’ll leave you with something to think about.
For all the technology entering schools, some are embrace the opposite — no technology at all. At the heart of Silicon Valley lies the Waldorf School of the Peninsula. It caters to the kids of Google, Apple, and other Silicon Valley tech-giant’s employees. But their approach is clear: learning is about imagination, creativity, and intellectual and cultural development.
Does your children’s school embrace technology? Or are they the opposite? Have you ever talked to your kids school about their data protection practices? Finally, how do you feel about technology in the classroom? Let us know your thoughts below!
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