A Conversation with Kerry Gallagher About Student Privacy During COVID-19

A Conversation with Kerry Gallagher About Student Privacy During COVID-19

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 22, Juliana Cotto, a policy fellow on FPF’s youth and education team, spoke with Kerry Gallagher, Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning at St. John’s Prep and Director of K-12 Education for ConnectSafely.org, about training teachers on video call platforms, how school leaders should work with teachers in adopting new tools, and important considerations for monitoring student behavior and engagement. 

Juliana: What are lessons learned from online learning last spring? How should they inform preparations and operations this fall?

Kerry: A new privacy element is that through virtual classes, we see into students’ homes. The majority of our students participated in virtual classes from their bedrooms because that was the one place in their homes they could focus. It wasn’t ideal to teach students in their bedrooms, but we needed students in a place where they could concentrate. So we had to set expectations on what was in their background, what they were wearing, and whether to sit or stand. These expectations were not to get students to be compliant per se; it was more that we didn’t want them to share more than they intended to share with classmates or teachers. Some adolescents are hyper-aware of what they’re sharing, while others are blissfully unaware. It was about raising students’ awareness about how much we were finding out about them just through what was in their background. In some cases, that meant we encouraged the use of a virtual background. Some educators may believe virtual backgrounds are a distraction, but if students use them well, it helps eliminate distractions. We also talked to students about effective lighting to promote participation in virtual learning. 

Juliana: Do you believe schools, educators, and students are more prepared for video classrooms than they were last spring?

Kerry: I know that in my school community they are because of the work we did. We started with Google Hangouts because we are a G Suite school. We intentionally asked teachers to start with what we already had built into our systems, to determine if that would meet our needs. We found out early on that it wasn’t robust enough to allow our teachers to do what they wanted to do. Google has added some robust features and qualities since then, by the way, and many schools have been using it successfully. So we explored different platforms, including Microsoft teams, Zoom, all of those. We decided on Zoom and purchased licenses to give us access to important security and privacy features. We were clear with our teachers that those features were important to protect them and our students. For teachers to get access they completed a custom training module that we designed. 

Zoom is pretty easy to learn on your own, but the training taught teachers how to enable security features that we wanted in place before any of our students under 18 or 13 started using the tool. And we held our teachers accountable. Our teachers were very vigilant and grateful that we provided this training for them. So that’s what we did and it worked. It doesn’t mean there weren’t hiccups, but I can count on one hand the number of “zoom bombs” that happened for our entire community. The teachers self-reported when it happened and, due to their training, were able to identify why it happened: “I forgot to check this box that we learned during our training.” I could then ask the teachers what help they needed. “Do you need help with having a follow-up conversation with your class?” “Do you feel like you need to address it?” “How can I support you?” “Do you want the dean to follow up?” “Do you think a student was complicit?” In a couple of instances, that was the case, so we just followed up with a disciplinary conversation, not consequence. We’ve laid the groundwork for these processes because we’ve been talking about data privacy and privacy concerns with our teachers for years. 

Juliana: How should schools consider and prioritize student privacy this fall?

Kerry: Many teachers across the country took advantage of the limited-time free offers that many edtech tools put out there from March to June. For the most part, that was okay because they were, in fact, tools that were designed for K-12, and so they complied with all the privacy and information sharing laws that we are concerned about. Five years ago, edtech privacy was the Wild West, and many edtech tools were not in compliance. Now, most companies have done their due diligence and have become good stewards of student data. 

The big thing districts have to do now is to make sure our students are the focus when deciding which edtech tools to adopt. What tools are the foundational ones that we, as a school, are going to tell families that we use? How will we explain to them that we’ve chosen these tools not just because they’re the best for teaching and learning but because they’ll keep their childrens’ information safe? Schools need to be proactive about this because more schooling is going to be happening online than ever. Parents are going to ask more questions about that, and schools need to be prepared to answer those questions. 

Juliana: What are best practices for protecting student privacy in a remote learning setting?

Kerry: Schools and districts should avoid adopting tools for teaching and learning that are not designed for teaching and learning. Just because an adult loves an app doesn’t mean it should be used by students, if it’s not designed for K-12 with the built in privacy protections for the K-12 audience. 

For administrators and school leaders who vet and decide which tools are safe to use, it’s a balance of the head wanting everything to be secure and the heart wanting teachers and students to feel empowered to be innovative. There may be a tool that’s really useful and innovative that does not fit neatly into established privacy guidelines. Be willing to be creative and allow students to use those tools under certain circumstances, even if it isn’t a perfect fit. We can partner with teachers to create structures that allow administrators to feel comfortable and give them the ability to be creative and innovative in the classroom. I have a student who is super into digital art creation, and our studio art teacher wanted to provide him with more opportunities to create digital art. But many digital art apps are not designed for K-12; they’re designed for professional artists. So we emailed his mom and explained her son’s passion and the opportunity we wanted to provide him through a digital art app that isn’t designed for kids. We asked her for express permission to do this solely with her son, not across the board. And she said “of course.” I think that’s the key. The teacher knew enough to say, “I know these apps are not meant for K-12 but I want this boy to have this opportunity to pursue his passion,” and then trusted that leadership would balance the head and the heart to come up with a creative solution.

Juliana: In an online environment, how should schools consider monitoring attendance, participation, behavior, and engagement? What should schools be cautious of?

Kerry: Behavior data is inherently more private than academic data. Our students should be permitted to be vulnerable and make mistakes when they’re in the classroom. Every single mistake shouldn’t be held against them. Classes are the time when students are supposed to be making mistakes behaviorally and academically so they can learn from them. The caution is, we need to carefully consider how we are using these monitoring tools, who has access to them, and whether we truly need to record and monitor certain data. The answers to these questions should be thoroughly examined before engaging with any companies. 

This past spring I had a conversation with my daughter’s second-grade teacher. My daughter was muting herself during virtual class so that when the teacher asked her a question, she couldn’t hear my daughter’s answer. My daughter didn’t realize what she was doing because she saw me mute myself when I’m on calls, to avoid extraneous noise. It’s actually good digital citizenship to use mute when appropriate. But she needs to be told that in this specific class, the expectation is different. My daughter also wasn’t always looking at the camera, which the teacher interpreted to mean that she was not listening. But, I asked myself, was my daughter always making eye contact with the teacher when she was still in the classroom? Probably not; she’s eight. Their eyes wander. So I recommended that the teacher have a one-on-one call with my daughter explaining these behaviors and why they are important. 

When it comes to monitoring children, before we start relying on technology to do the work for us, we need to remember that the human-to-human relationships should still be the primary way that we share those expectations, even if the humans are on the screen together instead of in a room together.

Juliana: What trends in technologies do you believe schools will adopt this fall?

Kerry: I think we’re going to be asking teachers to create video recordings of their lessons. That’s going to be new for teachers and may be a privacy concern for some. Schools will have to figure out ways to make teachers feel comfortable. It won’t be suitable for teachers or teacher unions to flatly refuse to record their lessons, because students may need to access lessons asynchronously. But it’s also not suitable for administrators or district-level folks to demand it of teachers without coming up with a solution that everyone is comfortable with. Hopefully, administrators and teachers will come together on a solution because that’s what’s going to be best for students and families. 

Another trend in technology we may see is the streamlining of communication tools. In addition to educators, leaders, families, and students, the folks who run the school facilities and manage health and cleanliness will need to be a part of communication more than ever before. So, any tool that makes communication more transparent and easier may be a trend. Learning models may change quickly, so whenever we have to transition from hybrid to remote and back to in-person, communication is going to be key so that it can be done successfully.


This interview was conducted by Juliana Cotto on July 22, 2020. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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