Are students’ data safe?

Like all teachers, I became an educator because I want to connect with students and help them realize they can accomplish great things. Today’s students are facing high expectations. As a result, more and more teachers are using technology to better support student learning and prepare a generation of screen-agers for college and an increasingly demanding workforce.

The proliferation of technology in schools is, of course, not without challenge. It poses new opportunities – and demands – for educators charged with safeguarding our students in the classroom, and online. This is a responsibility that teachers are aware of, and take seriously.

{mosads}That’s why I’ve been frustrated by an emerging, national discourse that paints a picture of naïve schools sharing personal student data with marketers, and uninformed teachers carelessly deploying apps without considering privacy implications.

As a teacher with over a decade on the front lines of the digital learning revolution, I worry about creating a false choice between student privacy and the transformative potential of technology in the classroom. As a parent, I worry that the privacy-backlash will result in my children missing out on the tools and resources they need to compete. And as an attorney, I worry that over-regulation of the tech industry may discourage burgeoning investment and interest in the real-world needs of teachers.

Across the country educators are working together to share best practices, review ed tech products, and ensure the technology we invite into our classrooms serves the best interest of our kids. Rather than looking at schools and teachers as ignorant bystanders, we should look to them as partners to establish standards, inform policies, and hold companies accountable. Here’s a quick snapshot of what’s really happening in schools.

Teachers, schools, and districts understand the risk, and take steps to protect student data.

Many districts have updated their practices in recent years to protect student data as technologies have evolved and use has increased. In my home state, districts like Cambridge Public Schools have written privacy policies that all of their ed tech service providers are required to meet. They have also collaborated with Boston Public Schools and shared their work throughout the state. To date, more than 40 districts have adopted their student privacy contract. This work is also underway in districts like Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, where staff developed sophisticated processes for validating the privacy and security of tools.

We’re preparing students for the real world.

Just as parents teach their children online safety when it comes to Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat at home, teachers have a role to play when it comes to technology used at school. Common Sense Media, a group that has been critical of education technology in recent interviews, is right to remind parents that “tech is here to stay in education, and if used properly, it can be great.” By incorporating tech in the classroom and having conversations about how to use it and what it’s for, teachers are teaching students how to wisely and safely use education technology. It’s a moderate, rational approach to a digital world that students will be expected to navigate for the rest of their lives.

Tech companies are partners, not opponents.

I’m encouraged that some of the largest technology companies in the world now view teachers as professionals they want to help support with new tools. We’re seeing unprecedented investments in new technology and apps for, and by, schools. I’m also encouraged by the rise of the teacher entrepreneur – tech companies started by former teachers who identified a problem or challenge in their own classrooms and devised a solution. There will no doubt be bad actors. But to suggest that the majority seek a profit at the expense of students, or prey on uninformed districts and teachers is just not consistent with reality.

I’ve worked with over 100 ed tech tools in my classroom, and I am not personally aware of a single company that sells student data as part of their business model. In fact, many have taken steps to be more transparent about how they use data and have committed that they will not sell personal student information, share student data, or target advertising to students. When schools do share student data with companies, we do so for the sake of improving the tools themselves. As a result, we’ve seen developers make adjustments to their apps and our students have benefited.

There is a fine line between raising thoughtful concerns about the evolution of technology in schools, and cultivating irrational fears among parents and policymakers. Rather than see tech as scary, I’m encouraged that teachers, administrators, and parents are working together to thoughtfully implement ed tech to meet the needs of students. When we work as a team with students as our number one priority, the possibilities are limitless.

Gallagher is a lawyer by training and currently serves as a Technology Integration Specialist in Danvers, Massachusetts. She is a 2015 PBS Digital Innovator, director of K-12 Education for Connect Safely, and a contributor to the Smarter Schools Project and EdSurge. You can find her on Twitter @kerryhawk02.


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