These are exciting times to be working in education, and there is just cause to be optimistic about the future thanks to better and more pervasive digital learning tools and services.

Yet, just as technology allows us to meet our longstanding goals for engaging and assisting students to succeed in new and powerful ways, it also presents new challenges to protecting the safety and welfare of students. While schools have done a good job of beginning to understand and help students and their families address issues of online safety, including cyberbullying and the inappropriate use of social media, a new safety issue has come to demand the attention of state and federal policy makers and school leaders: the privacy of electronic data and information about students.

Big data

Schools have long collected data and information about students — grades, attendance, courses taken, disciplinary actions, demographic information and home addresses — but it is only in recent years that schools have begun to digitize their records and use this digital data to make informed decisions about how to better serve students, their families and ensure the wise expenditures of taxpayer dollars. Coupled with the increasing use of digital textbooks, online services and education policy reliant on school data to judge the effectiveness of schools and teachers, it is no surprise that questions are being raised about what information is being collected about students and how it may or may not become a part of their permanent record, subject to public disclosure, or used for inappropriate commercial or political purposes.

"There is a need for schools to pay more attention to data privacy, be more transparent in their actions, and devote more resources to the issue."

Within the last year alone, dozens of states from coast to coast have gone beyond existing federal laws to introduce and pass new, more stringent legislation to protect the rights of students and their families regarding data collected by schools and their vendors, most often by limiting what data can be collected and with whom it can be shared.  

Regaining privacy 

In an age where issues of privacy are routinely reported in the news — from credit card breaches at major retailers, to issues surrounding national security, to the ever evolving practices of technology companies — it was only a matter of time before the privacy issue reached schools and students.  

The good news is that while state and federal legal and regulatory privacy frameworks will continue to evolve in an attempt to keep up with the continuously evolving technology landscape in and out of schools, there are some simple commonsense steps that educators and parents can take together to ensure that the promise of technology for learning doesn’t come at the cost of student’s safety and welfare.

Transparency is key

First, parents and educators should advocate for your school and district to be transparent about the data it collects about students and how that data is used. This means encouraging school leaders to assemble and publish online an up-to-date and comprehensive list of the information that is collected about students by the school and any of its vendors or third-party service providers. Ultimately, parents and educators have to know what sensitive information is collected to ensure that it can be adequately protected. This list also should include information about why each data element needs to be collected and with whom specific data elements are shared outside the school and why. Schools are subject to a variety of reporting requirements that mandate the collection of certain information, but it is important that data are collected only if there is a clear and justifiable need.

Second, parents and educators should advocate for your school and district to be transparent about how it safeguards the student data it collects, including information collected by vendors or authorized third parties working with the school. This should include how data about students (collected via technology or paper forms) is secured, how long that data is retained, and how students privacy is maintained in any disclosures to vendors or authorized third parties, including the state or federal government. 

Knowing the risk

Third, parents and educators should teach their students to make good choices about what information they volunteer about themselves and their fellow students online and to whom they disclose it. While there are a variety of legal and regulatory requirements that help ensure that schools have in place safeguards for the care of data and information about students, students may be their own worst enemies online — voluntarily disclosing personal information about themselves that can be used for purposes students never understood or intended. In the worst cases, voluntarily disclosed information could affect students’ ability to attend the college of their choice or to get a job – or subject them to bullying, harassment, or worse.  

In the end, fears of Big Brother need not dampen our enthusiasm to leverage technology to improve education. Indeed, it is a forgone conclusion that we will be using more technology in schools, just as we are using more technology in the workplace and at home. On balance, this will be good for students and teachers as it helps students to be more engaged in their learning, teachers to be more effective and efficient, and parents to be better informed about their students strengths and needs and how to better support them.

However, just as schools have policies about and offer training and classes on Internet safety and cyberbullying, there is a need for schools to pay more attention to data privacy, be more transparent in their actions, and devote more resources to the issue. While new state and even federal legislation may ultimately be needed to help cope with the issue, it is unfortunately rather difficult to mandate what is needed most: common sense actions by educators, students and parents.