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Fewer Resources, Fewer Choices: A School Administrator in Indiana Works to Protect Student Privacy

Wednesday, November 2, 2016 16:49
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In a rural, partly Amish community in Indiana, the schools are rapidly adopting educational technology from tech giants like Google. Students may be leaving farms in the morning to come to classrooms with Chromebooks at every desk. As technology becomes more and more integrated into modern education, these schools have to draw on scarce resources to protect the privacy of their students.

Eric M. is the Director of Technology at a public K-12 school district in a rural area of Indiana. The district is relatively small, with about 2100 students. In addition to G-Suite for Education (known as Google Apps for Education until recently), students use software from major publishers like McGraw Hill and Pearson. Beyond these core apps, some classrooms also use smaller software like Mobymax, Achieve3000, and Nearpod, as well as publicly available platforms like Prezi and Glogster.

“It seems like every classroom you look into is using technology,” Eric said. “As a technology director, that makes me both excited and scared.”

School administrators like Eric are on the frontlines of student privacy battles, and those at rural schools fight those battles with fewer resources and choices. Looking at student privacy from a rural administrator’s perspective—especially one who specializes in technology—reveals the limitations schools face when they try to protect students online. It also points to how schools can empower students and families to choose how they use technology.

Eric and his colleagues have taken several steps to protect students and support teachers—chief among them providing a strong opt-out system.

Eric’s district has been working on providing opt-out alternatives since before students had Chromebooks in the classroom. Eric’s district serves a large Amish community, and Amish students generally decline the use of technology. In order to respect the religious and cultural views of students, the schools are well-practiced in providing hard-copy options and alternative assignments.

The district is also prepared should students abuse technology with behavior such as bullying. “Opting out is not the only reason for a student to not have a device in their hands,” Eric said.

The schools provide students and their parents with a “menu” of options for opting out. In addition to FERPA-compliant options for whether or not students’ names and pictures can appear in the school directory, yearbook, website, etc., families can separately choose whether or not they want their student to use technology in the classroom. This is a strong contrast to the “all or nothing” opt-out structure some schools employ, in which students who opt out of classroom technology are also automatically taken out of the yearbook.

“It’s easy to do an ‘all or nothing,’ but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” Eric said. “I wish I could take it even further than that—the ideal scenario would be to break down the use of technology a little bit more.” For example, a parent might be fine with their student using all technology except for cloud services that require an account, or a parent might want their student to have access to the Internet at school but only on a family-owned device rather than a school-issued Chromebook.

Families may change their opt-out status each year. “We don’t assume year after year that the same student is in the same boat,” Eric said. “We find in practice that most parents aren’t opting out their students, but there are a few and they have very legitimate reasons for doing so.”

Creating a granular opt-out structure and non-tech alternatives for students does put extra demands on staff across the district. Guidance counselors handle the recording of a student’s opt-out status, teachers have the task of providing day-to-day alternatives, and technology teams like Eric’s provide support to teachers. With limited staff resources, Eric understood why time-strapped teachers could be frustrated when their students opt out of technology use.

“They’re not saving time if they have two or three students in their class who have to receive an alternative assignment,” Eric said. “We’re all trying to do a lot of things and wear a lot of hats.”

Giving parents and students the option to opt out of technology use is a necessary—but not sufficient—component of protecting student privacy. In an ideal world, schools and ed-tech providers like Google would provide students with technology so beneficial and privacy-friendly that they and their parents would not even want to opt out. In reality, however, digital privacy is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and families will always have a range of legitimate reasons for opting out or otherwise tailoring their student’s use of technology.

In addition to limited time and staff, Eric has felt the pressure of limited choices when it comes to technology. With regard to choosing ed-tech providers for his school, Eric said, “The choices that I felt I had available were Apple, Microsoft, or Google.”

Although Eric was interested in looking into smaller companies with better privacy practices, wider considerations of enrollment and what competing schools use took priority.

“The issue of privacy and security becomes an afterthought in school districts,” Eric said. “We’re under a lot of pressure to keep up with everybody. When every school in your area has devices, your board members are very interested—especially in a rural area where enrollment is declining.”

From Eric’s perspective, there are few guarantees that the technology students are working with lives up to its security and privacy promises. Beyond a support line for troubleshooting and privacy questions, Eric said companies like Google and Pearson don’t give him the tools he needs as a school Director of Technology to independently verify their privacy and security claims.

“I really have no way to hold these providers accountable to their policies. I kind of feel like I’m in the dark,” Eric said. “I think there needs to be real regulation out there that guarantees it.”

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