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Transparency and the Art of Protecting Student Privacy | SEEN Magazine

I have written a thought leadership piece for SEEN Magazine that discusses the importance of transparency in protecting student privacy. For sake of brevity, I have posted an edited version below that hits on the finer points.


School improvement efforts have driven data collection to new and alarming heights in recent years. Many argue that data is essential for improving students’ achievement in schools and preparing them for success in life, while others feel this holds true only if privacy, safety and security considerations are integrated from the start and implemented throughout.

Data, when collected and used correctly, brings value to schools and students; when amassed in a cloak of secrecy, without clear and discernible goals, screams trouble. Transparency plays an important role in protecting student privacy. For schools, focusing on areas of safety, security and trust are key to implementing effective student privacy initiatives.

Data Collection And Privacy

Schools today collect and use student data for various purposes. The general understanding is that data helps teachers and administrators make informed decisions based on empirical evidence. In a nutshell, data helps educators determine what is working and what is not.

Safeguarding student information starts with establishing clear lines of communication and employing transparency measures from the get-go. In order to eliminate confusion and foster greater support for the overall effort, it is vital that school and district leaders share what they are doing in a way that’s upfront, open and honest. Additionally, providing the proper services, support and training gives students, parents, and educators the tools, knowledge and skills they need to confidently handle this new responsibility.

Transparency And Accountability

Parental backlash is a real and pressing issue that educators are grappling with these days. Widespread concerns over the extensive amounts of data being collected in schools by private and public agencies have prompted many parents to speak out in opposition. While some are demanding to know what information is being collected from students, others are seeking a clearer understanding of the intent, its safety, and its security.

As parents press for greater transparency, and lawmakers push for greater accountability, school and district administrators, IT directors and school board members are finding themselves uncomfortably caught in the crosshairs. This is forcing education leaders across the nation to quickly and seriously reconsider their current approach to managing student privacy.

Safety and security

The conversation surrounding student privacy often comes down to safety. Parents need assurance that their children are safe while at school, both physically and virtually. They want a greater understanding of what is going on in the classroom, what digital tools are being used, what information is being collected from them, for what purposes and for how long.

Schools are no exception. Focus on physical protection of students has come to include digital security protection against cyber threats and intrusions. In response, schools and districts are reallocating resources to ensure adequate safety and security systems are in place.

Trust And Understanding

Trust plays a key role in managing student privacy because it is the proverbial glue that binds everyone and everything together. When supported by trust, successful privacy initiatives are engaging, empowering and effective.

Building trust starts with providing clearly defined goals and objectives that serve as a guide to understanding. In order to believe in the vision, participants need a comprehensive understanding of the big picture. Providing this offers a sense of ownership and some semblance of control.

Takeaways

Protecting student data is an ongoing and continual effort that demands attention, communication, collaboration, cooperation and understanding on broad and comprehensive levels. Taking precautionary steps in advance, openly communicating privacy plans and employing transparency and accountability measures from the start will help ensure privacy is protected and students are safe.



Is Your School or District Really Protecting Student Data Privacy? Here’s How to Tell.


For all the talk about student privacy – what it is, how to protect it, why it matters – there’s one question that receives precious little attention: How do you quantify student privacy? How do you measure it? How do you know that you’re actually protecting student data, and you’re doing it “right”?

 

There are various answers to that question, some obviously more quantitative than others. But what it comes down to is being knowledgeable about the online technologies your students are using in the classroom, understanding how third party vendors are utilizing the data they have access to, and having the ability to communicate this information in a clear and concise manner - to parents, teachers, administrators, board members and policy makers, alike.

 

This process starts with understanding what online technologies your students are using and whether or not they are safely protecting student data privacy.

 

Keep Tabs on Technology Usage in Schools

 

Today’s students use hundreds of different apps, websites and programs in school, and while the potential for growth and development is tremendous, keeping track of all this information can be a mountainous load of work.

 

Understanding whether an app or website is safe for students first involves knowing what the third party vendor does with the data they collect, how they store it, whether or not they share it, and ultimately how they plan to dispose of it.

 

This type of review needs to happen for each and every online technology (app, website, program…) suggested for use in the classroom before it is ever approved for use by students. And once it has been determined that it is safe for use in the classroom, continual monitoring is necessary so you know if and when privacy policies change - which they can, and often do.

 

Yet despite this being the cornerstone to protecting student privacy, it’s often viewed as a burdensome task that nobody wants to do. But the fact remains that in order to properly protect student data, somebody has to commit to proactively protecting it, in an ongoing, full-time, administrative capacity.  

 

Understanding that and focusing on a few key factors can help any school or district get ahead.

 

Know Where You Stand

 

Properly assessing online technologies, continuously vetting third party vendors, and giving educators the tools they need to make informed technology decisions are all efforts that minimize the risk of inadvertently exposing student data to misuse or abuse.

 

And while conducting a comprehensive audit of technology usage is a solid first step towards understanding the health and vitality of your privacy initiatives, creating an ongoing list of the apps and websites used in the classroom, keeping track of the online technologies used by students, and regularly monitoring them for changes are all proactive efforts to will help to better protect student data privacy.

 

The next step is to conduct a thorough privacy assessment for each online learning technology to establish a general understanding of the individual safety, security and privacy of the apps and websites currently in use. Those apps and websites that meet the necessary requirements can be approved for usage in the classroom, while those that fail to meet state, federal or district privacy requirements should either be removed or further assessed before they are allowed to be used by students. But it's worth noting that in certain instances, technologies that fall short of certain mandates may still be used in the classroom, they just need to have signed parental consent in order to do so legally. 


Considering the importance of parental approval, it’s wise for schools and districts to have defined method in place to distribute, collect, store and retrieve information in an orderly and timely manner. Knowing precisely what data is being used, by whom and for what purpose enables you see the big picture, to take charge of your privacy initiatives, and to establish control when and where it is most needed.

 

Regularly Monitor Online Technology Usage

 

Keeping up with the demands of student privacy can be a lot for schools to take on. Understanding the safety and privacy of online technologies is often a full-time job, in and of itself. So it’s important to remember that protecting student data privacy is an ongoing effort that requires regular checks and balances. Because companies often alter their contracts after the fact - leaving student data exposed for misuse or abuse - remembering to regularly monitor policies for changes is an important part of properly protecting student data.

 

One option is to implement solutions that utilize automation to do much of the work for you. By automating the privacy process, schools and districts can observe, monitor and adjust accordingly, making improvements based on real-time actionable data. Through the use of student privacy analytic tools, educators are better positioned to understand the safety and security of their student privacy efforts and can quickly and easily plan for change based on the information available.


A bit less formally, but no less importantly, there are some key qualities that define a truly proactive student privacy initiative —and if you want to know what kind of progress you’re making when it comes to protecting student privacy, looking for these qualities can be a good beginning.


Here are some ways you can tell that your organization has achieved a healthy measure of privacy protection:


1. You have a clearly defined, year-round strategy in place. 


Start by asking yourself this question: Is student privacy something you push hard for a week or two a year, but keep on the back burner for the rest of the time? Or do you have a full-time privacy plan in place that helps direct your privacy initiatives and drive successful outcomes?


How regularly do you review third party vendor contracts to ensure they haven’t changed their terms of service agreements? Is it something you address every so often, once or twice a year, or possibly not at all? Or do you have a system in place that monitors third party vendor contracts for changes on a regular on-going basis, enabling you to know immediately if and when a change occurs?


Answering questions like these, establishing plans and procedures, and communicating what is going to parents reveals much about a school or districts’ intentions, priorities, and potential protection level.


2. You engage parents in the privacy conversation.


Is parental engagement part of your plan? Do you have a way to communicate what apps and websites are being used by their children in the classroom? Do you have a way to obtain parental consent, particularly for those schools and districts with students 13 and under? And do you have a method in place to quickly and easily retrieve information at a moment’s notice when requested by a parent?


Providing a method to engage parents in the privacy conversation helps keep them current with what is happening in the classroom and informed about their child’s technology usage while at school.


Transparency and accountability measures, such as these, go a long way towards eliminating unnecessary worries and building trust with parents and schools.


3. You have formal structures in place to check for privacy. 


Remember the student privacy analytic tools I mentioned above? Well, having a program in place that keeps track of all the apps and websites used by students is a sound way to better understand the technology usage in the classroom.


Knowing the privacy of online learning technologies used by students in schools offers an added level of safety and security, and provides an extraordinary level of insight into the effectiveness of your technology initiatives.  


4. You have a formal method to obtain parental consent. 


In addition to having access to a library of apps and websites safe for use, educators often need a way to obtain parental consent when using certain technologies in the classroom. Of course this, along with all the other items listed above can be done manually, but for those education leaders that really want to get ahead, deploying a paperless, digital solution is really the most efficient and effective way to go.


By eliminating the paper pushing processes of the past, schools and districts now have a safe and sustainable method to obtain, store and retrieve parental consent with the click of a button. While utilizing paper forms is an acceptable method, online, paperless options are far less wasteful and easier keep track of. 


5. You know why student privacy matters. 


A final consideration: Do you know why protecting student privacy is so important? Do you have a clearly defined plan in place to protect your students and your school that breaks down exactly what you’re trying to achieve?


Having a clear sense of goals and expectations is critical to achieving successful privacy outcomes. Understanding what you want to do, how you plan to do it, and who is going to help you along the way are all hallmarks of a solid student privacy plan.


Bottom Line


Whether you working towards improving your current system, or are just looking for ways to affect change, start by answering these kinds of questions to ensure you are on the right track.


Establish a plan, be knowledgeable about the online technologies your students are using in the classroom, understand how third party vendors are utilizing the data they have access to, and have a way to quickly and easily communicate this information to parents in a clear and concise manner. Following these steps will help your school or district get ahead when it comes to protecting student privacy.


Does your student privacy initiative have the hallmarks of success? As a student data privacy advocate, I know that this is a topic many education leaders are wrestling with. I hope you find this quick checklist to be helpful!