A Conversation with Melissa Tebbenkamp About Student Privacy During COVID-19

A Conversation with Melissa Tebbenkamp 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, FPF spoke with Melissa Tebbenkamp, Director of Instructional Technology for Raytown Consolidated School District, and a founding member and past chair of the Missouri state chapter of Consortium for School Networking. Melissa provides insight on lessons learned in her district, the importance of long-term planning, considerations for implementing health technologies, and best practices for protecting student privacy. 

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

Melissa: One lesson that we learned is that you can’t wait until you absolutely need technology to start implementing it. You need to have a long-term plan. Our transition to online learning was a lot smoother because we already had pieces in place. Seven years ago, we started surveying families on digital access, to connect families to community resources properly. I had 125 hot spots in the district ready to be distributed to students if we ever needed this resource. It wasn’t that I knew a pandemic was coming; I just knew that virtual learning was becoming more and more relevant, and our district has particular needs, such as a very transient student population. 

The best thing you can do is look at the big picture and plan for the long term. When planning for the immediate term, this tends to be reactive and leads to temporary fixes. What if schools only come back part time? What if virtual learning becomes permanent? So, really trying to stay ahead of the game, which is challenging to do when everything is continuously changing. 

Another lesson our district tried hard to adhere to was to go slow, not fast. So when we went digital, instead of adding a tremendous amount of resources immediately, we actually scaled back the number of resources we used. We didn’t want our families trying to log into 20 different applications at home. We wanted to use the three or four that made the biggest impact, and use those well before adding any others. I heard from parents at other districts that teachers especially were falling into this trap. They would send the parent 20 different resources they wanted to use, but no one knew how to use them. There is also the problem of students juggling a bunch of different usernames, passwords, and accounts. We need to think about what we are trying to accomplish and how you achieve that with the least number of resources. Refrain from trying to solve everything in the world by throwing a bunch of solutions at it. 

Juliana: Do you have any advice for schools working to address their community’s digital divide? 

Melissa: I’ve always been of the belief that it is essential to build the infrastructure first. If your instructional team is ready to implement one-to-one, and you buy all the devices and give them out but your network is not prepared to support it, then that implementation will fail. If it is not successful from the start, the likelihood of its success in year two or year three is significantly reduced, even when you try to fix those underlying problems. As soon as things start not working, you will have teachers and staff who give up on them. They don’t want to take another chance because it’s a pain, and it takes time away from where they need to focus. We don’t always get it perfect every time, but if we can foresee where we’re going with instructional trends, we can build that infrastructure first. Then we will have a higher rate of success, and we prevent that implementation fatigue. 

Juliana: Are there any new tools your district will adopt to meet a specific need that resulted from online learning? 

Melissa: Our communication with our English Language Learner (ELL) families has been difficult. We’ve always relied on teacher communication with ELL families, and teachers always had a translator if they needed it. But now that we’re virtual, it is much more difficult to find a translator and get them scheduled. So we’re working on tools for our non-native English speaking families, such as family opt-in communication tools that allow the teacher to speak in their preferred language and families to speak in their preferred language. 

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

Melissa: I don’t think it’s any different than the regular school year. We have got to face the fact that we’ve been moving digital for a long time. Shifting to remote just kind of forced our hand on the importance and implementation of technology. We’ve made so much progress so fast because there was no other option; we had to do it. Our teachers had to make changes, make mistakes, and take risks right along with their students because they didn’t have any choice. We’ve made a lot of progress, and we should continue to make privacy and the safety of our students’ data a priority. We should make sure that we have a contract in place for every vendor that collects our students’ data that meets our data governance requirements. We need to have a mutual understanding of what data is being shared and what that liability is. We should do all that regardless of whether we are in a pandemic or not or doing virtual learning or not. As far as what priority it should take in back-to-school preparations, we should be training our teachers on our internal processes, what’s approved and not approved, and what that process is to get something approved.

Juliana: What are best practices for protecting student privacy and training teachers? 

Melissa: It is important to work with students on keeping their information private. We had an issue come up this summer where a student had their district email addresses hacked. The student had signed up for some non-approved application using their district account. This site had then got hacked into, and their username and password were released. We reset the student’s password and helped them through that process, but it’s important to know that students are also finding resources and signing up for things on their own. So we have to make sure our students are adequately trained on privacy and data security and when it is appropriate to use a district account versus a personal account. We teach them safeguards to help keep their data safe. In a physical class, students might not feel as comfortable signing up for some additional service to help them. But as students are learning from home, they may feel more comfortable signing up for different services and sites for help they need. 

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

Melissa: You are seeing a lot of proposed solutions out there for schools, but before you partner with any vendor or solution that monitors, ask what data are they collecting, and do they really need to have access to that information? One of the main ways these solutions monitor engagement is by looking at data. To monitor engagement, will the proposed solution need to have access to my student’s Google searches? Does it need the level of access that my content filter has? Do they really need all of that information about my students to monitor engagement? Or do I want to go with a solution that only actively listens to a specific list of instructional sites? So not monitoring everything that happens while students are online, just looking for specific URLs and determining how much time they’re spending on them. 

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

Melissa: I am cautious that some of these health technologies are worth the investment because of how low the accuracy rates seem to be on these tools. I did have a parent ask me about health wearable technology. Do we have students wear something all day that’s reporting their temperatures to us? I communicated to our families that I’m not comfortable with wearables. I don’t think I need a constant update from a student on their temperature and biofeedback data. But other schools may find this is a good solution for them. Other health technologies are infrared readers on computers that take students’ temperatures throughout the day. We will be buying sanitation technologies. So, efficient ways to sanitize an entire room quickly, treat the airflow to have clear air, and reduce the lifespans of viruses and bacteria in the air. We need to think about, what are we going to do with these technologies, be it thermal scanners, wearables, or metal detector-like technology, when COVID-19 is over? Are we buying something that only serves a short-term purpose? Is the real purpose of implementing these health technologies to reduce anxieties and help with public relations? Is there another way we can reduce that anxiety and not implement new technology that’s collecting more data than necessary? 

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

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