Are Privacy Fears Expanding the Digital Divide?
In recent years, growing concerns about students’ data privacy have led to over 500 proposed new laws in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. There are legitimate concerns about the protection of students’ information, but one concern doesn’t get enough discussion: whether privacy fears and the push for new laws are making it more difficult for schools and students to access new technologies, especially in low-income and underserved districts.
It’s an important question because low-income schools and communities already face barriers to new education technology (Ed Tech) and innovation. Despite the many benefits that digital technology brings to schools and students, concerns about potential downsides––such as cyberbullying, sexting, or data breaches and security mistakes––may create more hurdles for superintendents and principals or more reasons to decide to invest their limited funds in something other than Ed Tech.
Schools and parents have significant reasons to be concerned about the security and privacy of students’ information. As the K–12 Cyber Incident Map shows, since January 2016 U.S. K–12 public schools have reported nearly 400 cyber security-related incidents involving disclosure of personal information, loss of money or time, and in some cases identity theft and criminal charges.
Some new laws and proposed regulations take smart approaches to address these reasonable concerns. Others, however, have been rushed responses to advocacy campaigns or extensive news media coverage of hacks and data breaches. Privacy fears and the legislative responses, regardless of their goals, create more regulatory burdens and increase the risk that principals and superintendents may face parent protests, lawsuits, or worse. School leaders in underfunded districts, with less access to school attorneys or outside law firms, may become more hesitant to adopt new technologies. This will only add to the K–12 digital divide in schools, and signs indicate that this divide is expanding:
- In a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, a little more than half of teachers (54%) reported that all or almost all of their students have enough access to the digital tools they need at school, and only one-fifth (18%) of teachers said the same about their students’ access at home. A large majority (84%) of teachers also agreed that digital technologies are increasing disparities between affluent and underfunded schools and districts.
- The recent report “Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in lower-income families” showed that one-third of families earning income below the poverty level access the internet only through mobile devices, which severely limits the ability of students to conduct online research.
- Several reports have highlighted the growing “homework gap” between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don’t, and low-income households make up a disproportionate share of those without broadband connections.
- Just as important, parents and employers care about access to digital technology. A new survey of lower-income parents by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that 80% of respondents think that using technology in the classroom improves education quality. Moreover, a recent survey of employers found that 81% of respondents regard digital skills as an important requirement for hiring people.
As writer William Gibson has said repeatedly, “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Underfunded schools and districts already face many difficulties in expanding access to technology and innovation, from unreliable internet service and inadequate infrastructure to a lack of funds for improvements and training. Sadly, growing privacy fears and poorly designed policies may be making the situation worse. Well-funded school districts can invest in training and legal guidance to improve students’ privacy, but schools and districts with tighter budgets may have to make other choices, such as waiting to adopt new tools and strategies.
Stakeholders have legitimate concerns about students’ data privacy and security, and important steps should be taken to improve protections. But when advocates and policymakers push for new restrictions, we should think carefully about whether efforts to address privacy fears will make it harder to get new technologies and innovations to the students and schools that can most benefit from them.
Alan Simpson has extensive experience bridging Silicon Valley and DC as a Californian who spent 15 years in Washington. He helps companies, educators, families, and others navigate policy issues – including to encourage adoption and smart use of technology, and to address concerns about student data privacy. He has worked and consulted for organizations such as the Internet Education Foundation, iKeepSafe, Common Sense Media, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Voices for Illinois Children, National Public Radio, and the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN).