Data Privacy in the Age of Online Learning

Schools are relying heavily on technology—from videoconferencing programs to digital-teaching tools and temperature-taking apps—to educate children safely in the age of Covid. But this rapid deployment of new technology means schools are collecting a lot more personal data on students. And that is raising some troubling questions about who has […]

Schools are relying heavily on technology—from videoconferencing programs to digital-teaching tools and temperature-taking apps—to educate children safely in the age of Covid.

But this rapid deployment of new technology means schools are collecting a lot more personal data on students. And that is raising some troubling questions about who has access to the data, how it is being used and whether it is being kept safe.

Infrastructure for protecting students’ personal data wasn’t that sound to begin with, says

Leah Plunkett,

a Meyer Research Lecturer at Harvard Law School, who likens the current situation to building something “using duct tape on top of Legos.” The federal law governing student privacy dates back to 1974, and while some states have more stringent laws, sufficient funding to implement those statutes is often lacking, she says. And many public schools lack the technical expertise or personnel to deal with student-data privacy, she adds.

Technology companies often want to keep their data analytics and algorithms proprietary, which can make it difficult for outsiders to see what information is being collected, how it is being used and if it is ever deleted. Schools, meanwhile, increasingly have become targets of cyberattacks.

Here is some information that might help parents better prepare to protect their child’s privacy in an age of online learning.

What legal rights do parents have when it comes to protecting student data?

The federal law governing student privacy, called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (Ferpa), prohibits schools from releasing students’ educational records or personally identifiable information without parental consent, but there are some key exceptions. Technology companies, for example, have access to student data if they are providing administrative or educational services for a school, and schools can release de-identified student information without parental consent.

Share Your Thoughts

What do you think should be done to protect students’ data privacy?

Under the law, parents have the right to inspect, review and amend educational records, including contact information, grades, test scores, disciplinary records and school health records. The problem is, the average U.S. school was using 400 to 1,000 different online tools—this figure includes websites, software plug-ins, apps and games, among other things—even before the pandemic, according to the Student Data Privacy Consortium, an organization of school districts working to improve student-data privacy. That can make it difficult for parents to get a handle on what data is being collected.

What new information is your school collecting as a result of the pandemic?

This semester, some school districts randomly tested students for Covid-19, while others required students to record their temperatures daily and report any travel outside the state or region. This gives school districts and technology vendors more granular information about students’ health and daily movements.

School Breaches

Thousands of K-12 students had their personal information compromised in 99 reported incidents between July 2016 and May 5, 2020.

Breaches by actor, intent:

Schools also may have a more detailed picture of students’ online activities, especially if students are working on school-owned devices. If schools are using online-teaching tools, data on how individual students learn and perform is migrating from teachers, who had previously done these assessments, to technology companies.

Privacy advocates fear this could change the role of teachers. They also worry that the information could be shared and eventually used to create the academic equivalent of a credit score that could be used by institutions of higher learning or even employers.

What steps does your school take to protect data privacy?

Schools that are better prepared to protect student data often have a formal vetting process for new technology that prohibits teachers and administrators from downloading and using nonapproved digital tools on their own.

They also may be in one of the 9,000 school districts in the Student Data Privacy Consortium, which helps school districts negotiate privacy agreements with technology companies and provides model data-privacy agreements. Among other things, these contracts prohibit the sale or disclosure of student data to third parties, specify student data should be stored securely and deleted when it is no longer needed, and prohibit vendors from trying to match anonymous data with the student to whom it belongs. The contracts require vendors to take “reasonable security measures” to accomplish these objectives.

The consortium is now working with other organizations to define exactly how student data should be secured, deleted or encrypted, so school districts can request proof from their vendors that the proper measures were undertaken.

When the consortium was formed five years ago, there was “very little, if any, common understanding and expectation around student-privacy requirements,” says

Steve Smith,

chief information officer at the Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts and the group’s founder. Many school districts have joined the consortium since the pandemic began, he says.

Are teachers being trained to use new technologies?

The pandemic forced a rapid transition to online learning. As such, parents may want to request information from their school district about its procedures for vetting new classroom technology and its policies on training teachers and students how to use it.

Early in the pandemic, there were problems with so-called Zoom bombing, where outsiders disrupted classes being conducted on Zoom’s videoconferencing platform by yelling profanities or racial slurs. Many of these issues could have been avoided with better training, such as: Don’t make meetings or classrooms public; require a password and control the admittance of guests; don’t share a link on an unrestricted publicly available site or via social-media post; and set screen sharing to host only.

What can be done at home to thwart cybercriminals?

The Wall Street Journal reported in November that since the onset of the pandemic, schools have been fighting a wave of increasingly aggressive ransomware attacks by hackers. In these types of attacks, thieves steal addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, grades and other sensitive information and hold the information for ransom, sometimes posting it on the web or selling it to other entities.

“With schools online, there are a greater number of entry points into the network,” says

Reg Leichty,

founder and partner at Foresight Law and Policy.

Phishing emails, where hackers try to tempt the receiver into opening an email with an attachment or link to malicious software, are a problem, as are weak passwords and insecure home computers and Wi-Fi networks.

Parents should talk to children about phishing emails and creating strong passwords, ideally a memorable phrase that has no personally identifiable information, maybe a character or two from a book, Mr. Leichty says. He also recommends installing antivirus software on children’s devices and changing the default name and password on the home Wi-Fi networks.

Additionally, he recommends setting up a virtual private network, or VPN, to make web browsing more secure. VPNs create safe, private connections to the internet, camouflaging a computer’s location and making it more difficult for ransomware creators to track and target it.

How is your school using technology to evaluate students?

It is critical that parents understand how students are being monitored and evaluated online, says

Amelia Vance,

director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum.

To take attendance, for example, some schools require students to log in and stay logged in to a certain platform, or to turn on their web camera. But “what if a student forgets to log in that morning—or forgets to log out?” Ms. Vance says. “What if a student with limited Wi-Fi can’t turn on their camera function every day? Should these students be penalized for their perceived lack of participation?” she asks.

Parents also should know that the new technologies being used to evaluate students aren’t infallible.

The algorithms behind online tools may reflect the choices developers make, and those choices may be biased or just flat-out wrong. For example, researchers have shown that some essay-grading programs will give high marks to essays with good grammar, even if the content is nonsensical.

What about websites that aren’t part of an online classroom?

Sometimes students go to outside sites on the internet to do research, get a definition or just take a break. Parents should be aware that these outside sites aren’t covered by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and could be tracking their child.

“We used an application that identifies tracking and surfed through sites students might visit. We found 16 companies tracking us from, and over 35 companies tracking us from Sparknotes,” says

Faith Boninger,

an assistant research professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s National Education Policy Center.

Commercial websites are governed by the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, which require them to get parental consent before they collect information about children on their sites. But the law applies only to children under 13. That means that middle-schoolers can be treated as adults when it comes to sharing and using their information for marketing or other purposes unless there is a state law with stricter requirements.

Ms. Ward is a writer in Vermont. She can be reached at [email protected]

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