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Online learning is here to stay — privacy tools must rise to the occasion

Online learning is here to stay — privacy tools must rise to the occasion
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No teacher would stand for a stranger entering their classroom uninvited. No school would allow them to walk out with reams of students’ personal data. But in our increasingly online education system, we’re faced with those risks every day.

One year ago, classrooms moved from school buildings to kitchen tables overnight, forcing teachers, parents and students to accept online learning. While the country witnessed inspiring stories of teachers and families rising to the challenge, there were also concerning reports of a rise in “Zoombombing,” where uninvited users intrude on private video chats. And we’ve seen continued instances of ransomware attacks that can hold entire school systems hostage, including their troves of private personal data.

This problem won’t end with the pandemic. Despite its challenges, new research shows support for continued online learning is strong. Even as schools begin to reopen, 85 percent of teachers and 74 percent of parents believe it should remain a part of instruction. With online learning in some form here to stay, we must work to make it as safe for students as a traditional classroom.

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There is evidence that our education system is already adapting. Schools and districts nationwide have begun implementing proactive data protection policies and practices while improving equity by distributing devices to all students. While the focus of the unprecedented funding levels for K-12 education included in the American Rescue Plan Act will be on reopening schools, these efforts cannot ignore, or worse deepen, privacy risks that have threatened the emotional and academic well-being of our nation’s students during remote learning. 

The progress made by schools and districts should be applauded. Since the beginning of the pandemic, teachers have reported a 10-percentage point increase in schools with a technology plan that addresses student privacy and security. The data show there has also been a similar increase in teachers who had received guidance on the issue. 

We’ve seen examples of schools that have focused on transparency and communication, educators who have gotten creative when it comes to student engagement and bridging the digital divide and district leaders who were proactive in their efforts to build data protections into their efforts to connect students to instructors. Many teachers were thrown into difficult situations and have been doing what they can to balance the needs of their students with the new risks that have arisen. 

But there is far more work to do. Six in ten parents remain concerned about the privacy of their children. And who can blame them? Despite the increase in cyberattacks during the pandemic, research shows that three in four teachers haven’t been trained to protect students from these online threats. 

The core to every success story regarding student privacy over the last year has been how teachers, district leaders and parents worked together to leverage technology in a way that protects digital safety and promotes effective, accessible education for all. When students and their families were the starting point for solutions, better policies and practices tended to follow as a result.  

In an online world there will always be risks, but together we can institute policies and practices which harness the power of education for students without sacrificing their privacy and security. While we are having a national conversation about safe return to classrooms, we should apply what we have learned about threats to data privacy. Every student has a right to learn in a safe and secure environment — whether it’s online or in person — and it’s the job of policy makers, schools, teachers and parents to work together to provide them with one.

Elizabeth Laird serves as the Center for Democracy and Technology’s director, Equity in Civic Technology.