TRANSPARENCY AND THE ART OF PROTECTING STUDENT PRIVACY

05/18/2016
TECHNOLOGY
By Katie Onstad

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 discernable 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.

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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.

Information like this is meaningful when addressing areas of improvement, but when misused or mishandled, it can be a serious threat to student safety. Therefore, collecting data without sound privacy and security measures in place is asking for trouble, plain and simple.

Yet, despite the perceived risk, it happens in schools all the time. Education leaders acknowledge that this is a serious problem and are responding with tactics that confront the issue head-on.

School and district administrators are now partnering with industry thought-leaders and policymakers to establish rules that define what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to handling student data. The result has been movement on Capitol Hill and a spate of new privacy bills intended to govern the collection, use and disposal of student data.

This shift at the legislative level has elevated the issue of protecting student privacy to new heights. For many, it represents a step towards positive change. For others, it’s another layer of bureaucratic control that puts further constraints on teaching. The former represents a thoughtful, big picture mindset, whereas the latter is shortsighted and reckless.

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.

Under FERPA, parents have the right to inspect and review their child’s education records, and schools are required to accommodate these requests within 45 days. Be it a request for a student’s education record, or a list of apps and websites used in the classroom, schools are tasked with fulfilling these types of information requests in a timely, efficient and organized manner. Yet many schools and districts find themselves burdened by such requests and poorly equipped to respond to them.

Despite data collection being a progressively pervasive notion in our lives, for some the classroom is where the line is drawn. Many parents, now vocal advocates for child privacy rights, are demanding that educators be more open and transparent when it comes to managing student information.

AsAs 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.p>

Parents are demanding accountability. They want to know what is being done to keep their child safe, what safety precautions are in place to ensure this, and who is responsible if and when something goes wrong. But the unfortunate truth is that many schools are unable to provide answers to these kinds of questions. There is disconnect between the decisions made in the boardroom and their application in the classroom. This divide threatens the likelihood of successful outcomes, it threatens the safety of students, and it threatens the integrity of schools and districts, resulting in distrust from parents.

People are becoming increasingly more skeptical when it comes to data privacy. A number of recent high-profile hacking incidents have elevated the awareness of the issue, causing many to reconsider their actions online and search for alternative solutions to better protect themselves.

Most no longer assume the safety of their online identities. This explains why cyber security is a burgeoning multibillion dollar industry – $75 billion to be exact – with security analytics, threat intelligence, mobile security and cloud security topping the list for hot areas of growth over the next few years. The security awareness training market is also expanding with IT departments bolstering efforts to make accommodations for the increased demands.

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.

Students need to trust that their data is protected. Parents need to trust that their children are safe. Teachers need to trust that they will be supported. And administrators need to trust that everyone is on the same page working collectively together towards a greater good.

Steps towards achieving trust include: engaging parents and educators in the privacy conversation; sharing the school or districts’ privacy plan in an accessible and easy-to-interpret format; providing regular status updates; and offering ongoing help and support as needed.

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.

Katie Onstad is the Vice-President and Co-Founder of Education Framework Inc., a multi-service agencyoffering student data privacy and parental consent solutions for U.S. K-12 schools and districts. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Communication from The University of Montana, and focuses her efforts on helping education leaders across the nation better understand their role in protecting student privacy.For more information, visit www.educationframework.com.
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Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

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