Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.
October 17, 2013 at 6:00 AM
Schools must better balance technology and privacy rights
Technology is as omnipresent in public education as pencils and paper. We’ve seen the growth in tools like interactive white boards, document cameras and those egg-shaped devices that help students respond in classrooms. But another side of the technology debate revolves around storage of the copious amounts of data collected by schools, school districts and state education departments. So much data is floating around that districts around the country have turned to private companies to store information in the cloud. The companies protect files with high-level encryption, but still privacy rights advocates are mounting challenges to districts that rely on third parties for data storage outside of schools, reports The New York Times. Privacy advocates’ paranoia is not totally unwarranted. Some U.S. companies have data systems in other countries and when student data goes offshore, assurances are necessary to convince the public that the other country has rigorous security systems and privacy laws.
Technology’s power to transform and enhance learning cements its value in the classroom. Teachers are able to cross reference student data, track individual students and, with the right software, customize lessons in real time, the Times article notes. But that same technology could also be used to turn students into product testers and consumers. For this and other reasons, I understand the cautionary tone adopted by Commonsense Media, which is demanding the $8 billion educational technology software industry develop tough national safeguards for personal data collected about students. The San Francisco-based nonprofit offers great lesson plans about privacy rights geared toward students in 9th through 12 grades.. The key is building in boundaries and stringent rules to prevent that from happening. Google notes in another New York Times story that its advertising is turned off by default in Google Apps for Education products. Better an overall rule than relying on individual companies to do the right thing.
States collect student information largely about disabilities/health and special education services. Schools collect a lot more and it is not unusual for a district to have a dozen or more different databases, which are a pain for teachers to navigate but also spreads the data’s vulnerability to hackers or unscrupulous businesses. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) restricts student information while ensuring access by teachers and families. Whether FERPA offers a foolproof firewall is an unanswered question.
Washington is a tech-driven state that is unlikely to turn its data storage operations over to a third party anytime soon. According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, student data collected in this state is stored on a secure network managed by the University of Washington. The network has been found sound in terms of vulnerability to penetration and intrusion by U.S. military testers contracted by the state.
That’s good. But one day our school districts may decide to move the growing amounts of data to a cloud, or outsource the job to a private company. Safeguards and strong rules regulating not just who can access the data, but what the data can be used for, ought to be in place long before those decisions are made.