The Invisible Fence and Data Privacy

When I started teaching, resources in my district were scarce, and getting access to the best tools meant confronting a steep cost barrier. With the new goals and challenges each school day posed, I often looked to technology to support my classroom. I was laser focused on helping my students, but blissfully unaware of potential student data privacy concerns.

These days, it’s become essential for educators to be well engaged and informed on technology and privacy. Schools are gaining access to high speed internet at an incredible rate: 75% of students have access to high speed broadband at school in 2017 compared with just 5% in 2013. That means students can take video tours of museums in France from the comfort of a Chicago classroom. But as the breadth of classroom tools increases, it fuels an important discussion about the intersection of policy and practice, innovation and privacy. In short, it can be hard for a teacher to keep up with what is safe, and what is not.

Those of us who work on technology every day—developers, policy makers, association leaders, school IT professionals—must be more proactive in soliciting input from teachers. Two years ago, I left teaching to help advance the capabilities of an amazing application that I’d adopted in my own classroom. I’ve since spoken with hundreds of teachers who have shared similar stories about finding great tools and implementing them in their classrooms–only to be made aware of potential student data privacy concerns surrounding some of their favorite ed tech tools. For many, it’s like an invisible fence we don’t know about until we’re jolted by an incident.

Unfortunately, the worlds of teaching, technology, and privacy often operate as independent spheres instead of an integrated ecosystem. Teachers, as facilitators of learning, are connectors. We as educators can weave these worlds together by proactively engaging in the student data privacy conversation. But it’s just as important for those already operating in the ed tech and student data privacy worlds to invite teachers to join the conversation. I see three important strategies that the broader student data privacy community can take to move us forward.

Resources like data privacy law summaries in plain English, recommended questions to ask ed tech providers, and opportunities to build relationships with those who work on technology and privacy issues every day are useful tools to help teachers understand laws and their implications.

1. Be clear and transparent about what student data privacy laws say and how they influence the classroom. Teachers are on the frontline as observers of need, trackers of efficacy, and builders of relationships with students and their families. They identify and select good tools, teach students to use them, and help parents and families use the tools themselves. Teachers can play a role as both learners and informers. But to accomplish that, we need to be fully aware of the privacy laws in the places where we’re working. Resources like data privacy law summaries in plain English, recommended questions to ask ed tech providers, and opportunities to build relationships with those who work on technology and privacy issues every day are useful tools to help teachers understand laws and their implications. With a basic framework in hand, we can make smart decisions and ensure our students are protected.

2. Dialogue with educators. Ultimately, it’s not technologies themselves that address core challenges in education, it’s savvy implementation by educators. Policymakers, privacy activists and technology providers alike should seek dialogue with educators about tools, their uses, and potential use concerns. While it’s undoubtedly important to protect student privacy, it’s also a danger to eliminate access to tools that can transform learning for students. By working together, the teaching community, the technology community, and the students and families who are served by technologies can meet the sometimes competing needs for instructional technologies and safety.

3. Empower teachers as ambassadors for privacy and technology. Teachers can play an essential role in building comfort and trust among parents and students who crave transparency into the tools they use and the specific privacy protections they observe. When teachers are comfortable navigating guideposts–and communicating the how, why and what of data privacy–they are better positioned to mitigate unwarranted concerns but also ensure that real challenges or concerns are surfaced for providers and policymakers. Teachers can be both liaisons to local advocacy communities as well as vocal advocates themselves.

Far too many educators have been under-informed about student data privacy laws, or only learned about them because of local complaints. Teachers have an important role to play in advancing the conversation, but we also need support to effectively incorporate student data privacy and ed tech issues into our regular practice. Educators need not be intimidated by privacy laws or feel like their role is merely to select technologies and hope for the best. With a few proactive steps by those of us who know the privacy conversation well, we can all benefit from the essential contribution teachers have to offer.

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Kim Kalenda is a Researcher at ClassDojo. Previously, Kim taught Chemistry and Algebra at the Noble Network of Charter Schools and was a 2009 Corps Member for Teach For America. 

Image: “Mesh fence bokeh” by Henry Söderlund  is licensed under CC BY 2.0. The original picture was cut to 1200×545 for this blog.