First steps at protecting students’ privacy.

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I admit that at one point in time I was one of those educators who allowed students to sign into a site using a teacher’s credentials in order to gain access, for example, some of our intermediate students used Prezi for project work and signed in under the same generic Gmail account maintained by the teacher.

Nope:

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Over the past two years, however, thanks to the work of Audrey Watters, Bill Fitzgerald, and many others, maintaining the privacy and protecting my students online has become one of my main priorities as elementary technology coach. Prompted by a statewide communication last year from the education solicitors, our district set to work on making sure that parents were informed and involved in the decisions to allow their children to have accounts established at various educational websites and productivity services.

My scope is elementary, so I read a lot of Terms of Service/Terms of Use and privacy policies to make sure that our kids are even permitted to click on the website let alone establish accounts there. For example, we had been using Today’s Meet to organize classroom conversations in some of our intermediate classes. “No accounts are required, great!” was my initial reaction, and it worked well. I used it with staff in meetings, and I loved the ease and simplicity of use. Dig deeper, read its Terms of Use, and you’ll see that students under the age of 13 are not permitted to use Today’s Meet. Thus, I advise teachers to no longer use this service with elementary students, and it’s not on our approved list of educational websites for students <13 years old.**

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Let me please say that following are our initial steps in helping parents and teachers become more informed and involved in matters of student privacy and data use as it relates to educational service/website use. In no way is our procedure perfect. We need to continually work at improving this system to help ensure parents and students can be advocates for the way children’s privacy is maintained throughout their school careers (and lives). We also use  resources shared by Common Sense Media about privacy and protection to help students understand their rights as digital consumers and creators.

Due to COPPA language, we target our request for permissions to students under 13 years of age, which covers all of our elementary students as well as  a good number of seventh graders in our middle school. (However we really need to consider how we are informing all parents and community members, K-12 and beyond.) In opening week paperwork, parents receive this informational letter (modeled after the letter drafted for us by our solicitors), a consent form requiring parent signature, and the list of district-approved educational websites and productivity services where the child may have an account established. Not all teachers utilize all services on the list nor are they available to all students K-7, but we decided to compile them all on one list for ease of distribution. Parents receive a hard copy of the list in the fall, and we maintain this living list on this district site. If the district approves a new website for use, I update the living sheet and we send home an additional parent permission form to those students who will use the site. Homeroom teachers collect the forms and note any students who have not returned the consent form and forms are compiled/logged in the main office of each building. In the future we hope to integrate the logging of these forms electronically via our SIS and/or allow parents to consent via the parent information portal, but we’re not there yet. Parents are encouraged to contact building principals if they choose to opt out and/or if they have questions involving the educational use of any of the websites. They can choose to opt out of one or more services if they so desire. Learning accommodations are made for students who cannot interact with a digital service.

It’s a start. We still need to provide more parent and teacher education on the specifics of student data and privacy to help them protect their children in all elements of online and mobile interactions, not just their educational website use, which is supervised by caring teachers and school personnel.

I think it’s time we need to reign in our overzealous enthusiasm about the latest and greatest ed tech products and services. I get it. Shiny new things are cool and so are interactive websites and gee, the kids really are going to love it so I’m just going to set them up with usernames and passwords and let’s give it a try! I know, I know. We’re telling you to integrate and be all up in 21st century skills and now we’re warning you about doing so. Shame on us.

Just be smart. Read terms of use and privacy policies. Ask for help if the terms are so full of jargon and nonsense you can’t make heads or tails of the meaning. Be the adult. Inform and involve parents in decisions. Get your administrators informed, because sad to say, they’re likely not the most informed bunch when it comes to student data and privacy.

Protecting students’ data and privacy is becoming increasingly difficult every day, but that’s no excuse for not taking steps to do so.

It starts with you!

 

**At the time of initial publishing, the Today’s Meet terms were captured above. They have since updated their terms to read: “In order to create a TodaysMeet account, you need to be 18 or older, or be 13 or older and have your parent or guardian’s consent to this Agreement, and have the power to enter a binding contract with us and not be barred from doing so under any applicable laws.”

The point of this original post was not to call out certain services or products for their failure to acknowledge whether or not students <13 can lawfully use the service, but to relay the importance of reviewing terms (for educators and parents) before deciding whether to allow the use of tools.

Questions about communication.

CC Licensed Photo Shared by Melvin Gaal
CC Licensed Photo Shared by Melvin Gaal

One of my district’s recent projects has been thinking through and seeking to transform the way we communicate via digital means. These are some questions that come to mind when I contemplate digital age learning and communication.

Dear Superintendent,

If I were a parent moving into your district, would I be able to access quality information about your schools online? Not just test scores and state report cards – but a real, true, authentic look into the classrooms and learning in your schools? Would I be able to Like your school’s Facebook page and follow your district on Twitter, and receive timely updates in my own social media streams or through a district app? Does information from your district come to me? Or do I have to go out and find it myself? Can I comment on and re-share district news?

Are there methods in place for informing me about issues in times of crisis? Is it clear where and how I should be locating that information and/or how the information comes to me? How can I easily find out about your district’s policies and procedures? Are directories readily available so I can contact who I need to, when I need to? How do you collect, store, and protect my child’s data? Who do you share it with and why? How can we access our child’s data at any time?

Are you proactive in publishing critical news and updates to community members or reactive after stories hit the local news?

Do your communications clearly share your vision for learning and the resources, concepts, programs, standards, and instructional techniques used to help students achieve? Do I know what your leadership team hopes to accomplish this year and beyond, in five years? Ten years?

Are all subgroups and populations equally represented in communications? Can I find as many stories about learning in the primary classrooms and emotional support classrooms as I can about high school sports achievements?

How do you accommodate for families who do not have Internet access available at home or Internet-enabled devices? Are your communications able to be easily translated for speakers of other languages? Are your district’s facilities opened up to the public to allow those without access to stay current and engage with your online spaces? Are paper communications used to reach all stakeholders in the absence of connectivity? What are you doing as a school leader to help local and government leaders get access for everyone in your community?

Do you have an online presence as a learner? How do you model for your staff and students that you continue growing and learning as a leader? Do you communicate efficiently, effectively, and consistently with your staff?

Am I a welcomed visitor on your campus? How will I feel that I am welcomed?

Dear Principal,

I want the best for my children, as I know you do. When I want to learn more about your school, can I go to your school’s blog or website and see learning taking place? Does your online presence demonstrate to the public why your school is a special place to learn? Why are your teachers special? Students? Staff? Community? Who are they? What do they believe in? Does your school’s vision and mission shine through in all of your communications? What events and activities are being shared to spark excitement and interest in your school community? How are your postings and your online presence modeling respectful and powerful online communications? Can I see photos of learning in action? Do you use Instagram or Flickr or similar to allow glimpses into daily school life?

Does your district respect the demands on my time as a busy, working parent, offering various structures (online and offline) and opportunities for learning and for parent involvement? Are there Twitter chats or Google Hangouts or live streams of events that I can attend virtually if I can’t attend in person? Are things archived for easy access after events? Are there regular opportunities for parents to provide input on various aspects of school life?

Can I find common forms on your website, things I can access quickly and easily? Schedules, handbooks, menus, bus information, directory information, policies, procedures? Do you report daily or weekly happenings in the form of school news or interactive bulletins? Do you offer the same benefits for your staff through consistently-maintained information processes?

Am I met with smiles when I enter your school’s doors?

Dear Teacher,

You spend countless moments day in and day out creating stimulating learning environments and designing learning experiences for our children. Do you communicate the ideas shared in class with your students’ families? Do your students’ families know what your class values and admires and works to achieve? If my child was in your class, would snapshots of the week’s learnings be available to me through your class blog or website, or your class’s Twitter feed or Facebook page? How can I communicate my questions and concerns with you? How do you involve my child in the communication process? How is my child expected to share his learning with you, with me, with his peers, and with an authentic global audience?

Do you share what you do with other teachers who are looking to bring the best they can to their students? Do you freely share resources, ideas, content, and time with your both your local and global colleagues, knowing that in the spirit of reciprocity you, too, will benefit from what others share? Do your students know you are a learner first?

Is my feedback welcomed and encouraged? Can you help me understand the difficult work that you do in a way that helps me best support my child?

Am I met with smiles when I’m welcomed at your classroom door?

Dear Parent,

Don’t settle when it comes to your child’s school’s communication methods. You deserve to understand the full breadth and depth of your child’s learning experiences and to be embraced as part of the learning community. Your voice deserves to be heard and acknowledged. You should expect not only to be involved with your child’s school, but to be engaged.

 

What else should we be asking ourselves about the way we communicate in school communities?