COVID-19 has placed districts, schools, and educators in unprecedented circumstances as they balance health concerns, academic responsibilities, and equity concerns to determine how to reopen this fall. How does student privacy relate to this planning? 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 as schools plan for the coming academic year.
On July 22, Juliana Cotto, a policy fellow on FPF’s youth & education team, spoke with Chris Hanson, instructional technology specialist for Eanes Innovative School District in Austin, Texas, about these topics, as well as building technology infrastructure, how to monitor attendance and participation in a remote environment, and how the conversation about student privacy is evolving.
Juliana: What are a few of the lessons learned from online learning last spring, and how should this inform preparations for the fall?
Chris: To start with, I think it’s best I tell you about my district and my role. My situation is different from the norm: it’s a very affluent area. We have a pretty rich technology infrastructure, and we were one of the first districts in the nation to do a one-to-one iPad program for K–12. I believe we were at about 98 percent student Wi-Fi coverage across our district. We didn’t have to struggle with these questions of how to provide equity for our students.
The main focus of our lessons from the spring was instruction and engagement. A real benefit from the spring was that teachers already had relationships formed with their students. Teachers had a general idea of what to look out for in terms of which students might need support, the extroverts and the introverts, when to silence microphones, and so forth.
In the fall, we will have to deal with how you establish meaningful relationships with new students. And when you talk about developing those relationships, you don’t have that physical environment to create those one-on-one conversations: you’re not seeing them at lunch, you’re not seeing them at recess, and you’re not going to their sporting events. So, we are trying to utilize other teacher experiences across the globe in year-round schooling and identify best practices to offer professional development for our teachers.
Juliana: For districts that are just now building their technology infrastructure, where is a good place to start?
Chris: I’ll point out one potential issue that school districts should plan for: industry limitations. We are doing a refresh on our iPads and ordered these back in April or May. We have to anticipate receiving our order mid-semester. If we do, should we even roll them out to our high school students if we are still in a remote environment, or should we wait for a semester break? For districts that do not have any one-to-one devices in place, will they get their instruments in time?
In the best-case scenario, if districts can acquire devices in time, the question is how to then build an infrastructure for integration in a remote environment. My advice is to keep it really simple and consider working with Windows 365 or Google Suite. The simplicity of their applications is very helpful, especially for younger students. It also leads to uniformity in how technology is used across different classrooms and teachers. When we first rolled out our one-to-one program in my old district, every teacher was doing something different. It is important to build a foundation so that everyone is doing at least a couple of things the same. This helps both teachers, who will have to explain the technology to students, and provides familiarity and comfort to students.
Last is video calls and the synchronous aspect of remote learning. What is the balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning? Do you do direct teaching in a synchronous environment? I would say no. Instead, spend that time to have discussions, provide engagement, and keep it short. In some lengthy webinars, I’ve tuned out after 15 minutes. Imagine being a 12- or 14-year-old. Try to push that direct teaching into an asynchronous environment, use checkpoints and assessment tools to really data-drive your instruction, and then personalize that for the students.
Juliana: In an online environment, how should schools consider monitoring attendance, participation, behavior, and engagement? What should schools be cautious of?
Chris: There’s going to be different ways that different states deal with these issues. I know our state, Texas, limited the number of instructional minutes required for students to be considered present. States are adjusting and will continue to make adjustments.
It is possible to track participation through different activities and lessons. There are platforms out there that will track the minutes of activity. In terms of our teachers instructing, which is what we want for most of our students, how do you track those minutes? I think that’s what we’re trying to do by keeping to our class schedules and establishing teacher expectations. However, how we enforce those expectations will be interesting. For example, if the expectation is for a teacher to teach for 45 minutes Monday through Thursday, will we have an evaluator check in to make sure instruction is still happening at minute 42? Or is the expectation that teachers are professionals and know how to use this time best? I think the latter is how we will deal with most instances. If we do get student or parent complaints about lack of instructional time, focus, or rigor, we can look at either the recorded or live sessions.
Juliana: What are some best practices for protecting student privacy in a remote learning setting?
Chris: It’s essential to have clear messaging on how staff will handle any recording of video classes. For us, initially, the immediate goal was to record all sessions and keep the recordings. An important question to ask was, why? Our main reason was so that students can access the sessions later. But suppose you are going to record these video classes. In that case, you need to ensure the video calls are on a private platform that is password encrypted or only accessible to domain email addresses. Schools need to also think about where these recordings will be stored. This is a huge student privacy issue, especially when considering that these are live recordings of students in their home environments.
Schools’ student privacy leaders need to come up with best practices on this and then work with someone who is not in a technology role, to translate this information to teachers, families, and students clearly and simply, so that everyone is comfortable with and aware of the decisions. It is important to make this clear from the start through proactive messaging. Schools need to anticipate the concerns parents may have so they can proactively address them. Anticipate worst-case scenarios. Reach out to parents who you anticipate will be concerned. Set time aside to hear from parents. I think involving the community at that level is a best practice for running a campus.
Juliana: How should school leaders think about and prioritize student privacy as they prepare to go back to school?
Chris: A big thing I deal with every year around this time is teachers wanting to use new products or apps they’ve seen or heard about. Before teachers can dive into using this new product or app, I remind them that there’s a whole procedure for district approval. But even before this step, you need to ask, is it really something you want to use? It’s important to not only consider what the tool is but also how it fits into the teacher’s instructional practice. My response is usually to show them what apps or platforms we are already paying an annual subscription for that have similar uses and features. It’s not about the tool; it’s about the practice and comfort and engagement of students. If you bring in 20 new tech tools, you are no longer teaching algebra; you’re teaching an edtech class because you’re going to have to teach the students how to navigate these platforms.
Juliana: Have you seen the student privacy conversation change? How do you see this conversation evolving in the future?
Chris: I’m not sure that our remote environment caused more consciousness of student privacy. In my role, I’ve built privacy training and tried to create messaging about that. We’ve been able to build out messaging and awareness not just with our staff but with the whole educational community.
Do I think this conversation is going to evolve in the future? Absolutely. I mean, you have California coming out with their policies, and globally these conversations are being pushed forward. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take something drastic to bring the conversation to the forefront. Could we have been more hygienic before the COVID outbreak? Yes. But there wasn’t as drastic a need as there is now. So it really does take drastic measures to cause significant change and awareness. I don’t ever see it becoming something very popular. But I think it’s still important for people to converse about, especially with the amount of information online.
This interview was conducted by Juliana Cotto on July 22, 2020. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.