Educator’s Guide to Protecting Student Data Privacy

person at a laptop protecting student data privacy

Protecting student privacy is a major concern for educators. 

Since the start of the pandemic, 55% of schools have purchased laptops for their students. Another 42% have purchased other devices for all of their students. 

This means that educators have access to more student data than ever before.

As a result of the increase in technology, educators simply can’t overlook protecting student data privacy.

Even the law requires a certain level of surveillance and mindfulness. Since 2000, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) has mandated schools and libraries block access to obscene or harmful images. 

But how can schools protect data on a larger scale? Here is the educator’s guide to protecting student privacy:

  1. Common types of sensitive data
  2. Side effects of surveillance
  3. Safe practices in data monitoring
  4. Informing your students of your data policy
  5. Making good use of student data

1. Common types of sensitive data

School districts collect a lot of data from their student’s devices. This data commonly falls into four categories.

  1. Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

PII refers to any official information that could be used to identify a student. This includes data points like:

  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Full name
  • Birthdate
  • Health information
  • Social security number

School-provided devices can contain a lot of this information. In fact, about 45% contain social security information. This data is highly sensitive and should be guarded closely.

  1. Academic records

Academic records include data like:

  • Report cards
  • GPA
  • Test scores
  • Teacher recommendations

While less sensitive than PII, academic records are still private and should be safeguarded.

  1. Online activity

Online activity refers to anything a student does online. 

This could be search queries, browsing history, chat messages, and more. 

This activity should never be viewed or analyzed by anyone, with the expectation of a surveillance program flagging activity as suspicious. 

  1. Audio/Video

Audio/video includes anything recorded by a computer microphone and webcam. 

For privacy reasons, this information should not be collected without consent, but given that classrooms are online now, students often have to share this information. 

One of the only justifications for the recording of audio and video are in the cases of projects. 

2. Side effects of student surveillance

As quantum physics has pointed out, you can’t observe a system without disturbing its behavior. 

Students behave differently under surveillance, and this often has a negative effect, such as:

  • It restricts the expression of thoughts and behaviors.
  • It worsens disparities for students of color.

Surveillance can make students uncomfortable and wary of expressing their opinions. 

This claim is backed up by research from the Center for Democracy and Technology. The 2021 study suggests that students may fear disclosing private aspects of their personal lives. This includes their sexual orientation and religious beliefs. 

When students knew they were being watched, they became more reserved. Of the students surveyed, 53% said they don’t share their true thoughts when being monitored. A full 77% said they were more careful with their search queries.

It’s crucial to be aware of the side effects that come with surveillance, especially as they impact students of color and minority groups. Virtual classrooms and online surveillance only increase the challenges already faced by these students. 

How does surveillance impact freedom of speech and expression? How can school systems begin to embody ethics and responsibility towards their students, staff, and peers? These are the questions to ask. 

A Johns Hopkins study found that students at high-surveillance schools tend to get suspended more often. They also have lower math scores and attend college less often. 

Studies have also shown that black students are four times more likely than white students to attend a high-surveillance school.

When choosing to monitor student activity online, less is generally better. You don’t want students to feel like you are watching their every move. 

But if you do monitor student activity, make sure they know why and how you are doing so. 

Many surveillance programs only watch for red flags and otherwise report no data. 

If you adopt this model, then students may feel better knowing that no one is reading their chats unless they are plotting a crime.

3. Safe practices in data monitoring

Like anything else, data monitoring can be done safely and effectively. When handling potentially sensitive data, it’s always crucial to keep student privacy in mind. 

The best thing you can do is to get up to date with the official policy.

For starters, the US Department of Education sets regulations for data privacy. They also provide resources for educators.

Educators must then provide consent before an agency or institution discloses PII. This includes, of course, any online platforms you use. 

The only exception is in relation to emergencies, which COVID-19 may apply to. 

Officially, the Department of Education has stated that PII may be disclosed to relevant public health officials. 

This is only the case if a relevant public health threat exists. Such information should not be disclosed to the media, or to other families.

As always, use discretion when handling student data. 

And remember the golden rule: don’t share or record any data you wouldn’t want to be shared or recorded about yourself.

4. Inform your students about data collection

Students have a right to know what you know. 

Your position as an educator is not as an adversary, looking to find faults or shortcomings in students’ activities. Your role is the same as always: to teach.

Consider laying out your data collection policy at the start of each semester. 

Every student who uses school technology should be briefed on school data policy before they use it!

The advantage of this approach is to promote trust and transparency. 

Students should not feel afraid to be online or to use school technology. They should feel empowered to learn in a safe environment.

5. Making good use of student data

The most important use of online surveillance is to monitor for safety. 

Students should not be plotting in-school crimes online, but if they are, schools should definitely know about it.

Data can also be used to improve your school’s educational experience. 

Data may reveal how test scores vary by department, for example. 

You can even determine if the length of time a student spends in the online classroom has any effect on their learning. Or, perhaps statistics will show that an extensive use of online chats has a negative effect on performance.

You should collect such data anonymously, and only draw conclusions from large samples. 

Otherwise, there is a risk of targeting individual students, and of oversharing student data. The last thing you want is to breach student privacy and safety. 

If you do collect data for this purpose, let your students know. Explain why and how you are collecting the data, and that you cannot and will not connect the general findings back to any particular individual.

Choosing safe digital platforms

Managing student data in a responsible and ethical manner that makes everyone feel safe is critical. 

This also requires effective communication and disclosing to your students what information is collected, and why. Never collect information unless you have a clear reason for why you are doing so. 

And so, one of the best ways to keep your students’ data safe is to use safe and reputable online platforms. Stay away from sources you don’t trust and only install approved software. Apps from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store have been vetted and are a great, safe place to start. 

A good platform will protect student privacy and data, and be non-intrusive. It should inform you of all data it collects, and optimally, it won’t collect audio or video.

We are proud to say that Skooli offers a virtual classroom experience that values and protects student data.

Running on only live audio and chat protects the identity of students. 

If you are curious about how Skooli can help your students, you can learn more here.

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