COVID-19 has placed districts, schools, and educators in unprecedented circumstances as they balance health concerns, academic responsibilities, and equity concerns this fall. How does student privacy relate to these issues? For this blog series, Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) has interviewed state, district, and school student privacy leaders, to reflect on lessons learned from the rapid transition to online learning in the spring and to offer best practices regarding student data privacy in the current academic year.
On July 24, Juliana Cotto, a policy fellow on FPF’s youth and education team, spoke with Allen Miedema, Executive Director for Technology at Northshore School District, in Washington, about the need for clear communication, best practices for conducting virtual classrooms, and important considerations for tracking student achievement and administering assessments in an online environment.
Juliana: What are lessons learned from online learning last spring? How should they inform preparations and operations this fall?
Allen: One of the biggest lessons learned was around communication during the transition into a remote environment. I believe Northshore was the first or at least one of the first districts in the country that went fully remote due to COVID-19. The time between discussion and planning and the actual execution was about 72 hours. With this fast timeline, we could have done better with communication. We had never gone through such a rapid and dramatic change, so there was significant uncertainty. We could have focused more on providing a clear message: it’s not the Wild West, we are still concerned about data privacy, and the laws are still in effect. I could have stressed this a little more or made it more clear. Looking back on all the information teachers had coming at them, I don’t know how we could have made it the top priority. We were a victim of circumstances. People were doing the best they could, and in some cases, privacy was not at the forefront for them. They were focused on what to do to make sure kids were getting the resources they needed.
Juliana: Do you believe schools, educators, and families are informed about protecting student privacy in a video conferencing setting?
Allen: Yes, way better. When we were initially using video conferencing tools, these products were geared towards adult use, not child use. So we immediately started figuring out what some of the challenges and problems in the industry were. But now, these tools have gotten so much better in the past few months. The data compression, image pixelation, and audio cutouts have all gotten better. Vendors have put stronger privacy protections and control in place and offer user training and professional development so that people understand how to use their products. The industry as a whole has improved.
Juliana: Have you seen the conversation about student privacy change as a result of online learning? How do you see it evolving?
Allen: I have seen the conversation change. Any time there is a disruption to the system, there’s an opportunity to get different people involved and interested in the conversation. I don’t think it’s a secret that in K-12, student privacy isn’t top of mind for most classroom teachers, and for some it’s not a concern at all. So in this moment, you can seize on it. There are folks who I have never talked to about student privacy who now come and raise concerns to me. Some of it was personal concerns, such as not wanting their personal information to get out when signing up for new accounts during remote learning. This was an avenue to have a conversation about student privacy and take steps to make sure student information wasn’t unnecessarily or inappropriately shared.
This environment has also allowed us to look at how we teach digital citizenship to staff and students. Now that educators and students teach and learn in their homes, it feels more personal to folks. Even if you’re essentially doing the same things and moving the same data in the same way as before, people are just more concerned now that this is happening while in their house. People react to it in a different and more personal way, which is an opportunity for us.
Juliana: How should schools consider and prioritize student privacy this fall?
Allen: Northshore is doing what many other districts are doing, and that is starting the year 100 percent remote just like we ended the school year. But hopefully, we will be better at it. This means using better curriculum and pedagogy around how we conduct our online learning. We will be implementing new software that has been vetted, which always brings up conversations about data privacy. The major advantage that we will have this time around is the professional development (PD) we will be providing to teachers throughout the summer. In the spring, any PD we offered was really about using different tools and less on best practices—we didn’t have time for that. Hopefully, we’ll do a much better job because we’ve had time to plan.
Juliana: What are best practices for using video conferencing tools to conduct virtual classrooms?
Allen: One best practice is that we are advising teachers to be respectful and aware of student circumstances and allow them to do what they’re comfortable with. We have to acknowledge and respect the fact that for some kids, their home environment isn’t something they want to share with others. I know that to take attendance and verify the right students are in the class, some teachers require students to keep their cameras on just long enough to see who they are, and then let them turn their cameras off.
The other best practice relates to recording. This is a big issue when it comes to student privacy. Is it okay for you to record your virtual classroom? If you are going to record, what is the purpose? It is important to be aware that some students may not be comfortable with being recorded due to particular circumstances. We’ve discussed this with our staff. One of the issues teachers are especially concerned about is having to protect themselves during one-on-one virtual conversations with students if there’s any legal claim of doing something inappropriate. Our response was understanding of teachers wanting to protect themselves, but there are alternatives where teachers can feel protected without recording. For example, when having a one-on-one with a student, ask another adult, be it another teacher or an administrator, to join the call. If we have teachers who want to record classes for asynchronous learning opportunities, then reflect on whether it is necessary for students to have their cameras on––again, just being intentional and thoughtful about the student perspective in virtual classrooms.
Juliana: How are schools considering monitoring attendance, participation, and behavior? What should schools be cautious of?
Allen: Schools should carefully consider if the data they are collecting means what they think it means. We’ve seen this before the COVID-19 outbreak, where people assign qualities to data that the data does not have. Attendance, participation, and engagement are all perfect examples of this. If we know that all kids are logged in to a meeting, can we say that that class has 100 percent engagement? I say, a student logged in to a meeting doesn’t necessarily mean they are engaged. All we do know is that the student clicked on the meeting link. On the other end of that is saying a kid isn’t engaged because they haven’t logged in to the virtual class. But how do we know if the kid is checked out or maybe has three other siblings simultaneously trying to stream? Or perhaps they have to watch their siblings and so can’t attend a class at that specific time?
We need to be especially critical when thinking about students’ achievement and accomplishment in this environment. Are we seeing students’ achievement or seeing a reflection of parents’ ability to be involved in the education process? How does students’ achievement during online learning reflect parents’ capacity to be involved in the process versus students’ effort or ability?
In thinking about administering assessments in an online environment, I don’t think we are accounting enough for the changes that remote learning requires. In a typical school environment, teachers would hand out tests, students take the tests sitting at their desks, and when done, hand it back to their teacher. How do we replicate this in a virtual setting, where the teacher cannot be physically present? And whatever the assessment model that schools build, it has to take into account that students’ lives at home will be different. I don’t know if we’ve done enough thinking here.
Juliana: What trends in technology do you believe we’ll see schools adopt this fall?
Allen: There’s going to be a lot more interest in how teachers can determine students’ progress. Since teachers can’t as easily have one-on-one conversations with students, they need other ways of doing informal check-ins. Schools and teachers will be interested in tools that will tell them what questions students got stuck on, or portions of the lesson they had to keep going back to, that indicate a student may need further support. Especially in an asynchronous environment, where students may be doing their work at 10 pm, how do I still get that data on all kids?
Schools and teachers will also be interested in improving their teaching in an online or hybrid learning model. It gets boring fast, trying to pay attention to a talking head on your screen. How can they make more of a dynamic environment for kids? It could be as simple as setting up a swivel camera that follows teachers around—tools like that make virtual classes more interactive and engaging. And it requires thinking about how these tools work in a potential hybrid environment, where you have some kids back in the classroom and others on screens learning from home.
This interview was conducted by Juliana Cotto on July 24, 2020. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.