The Educator’s Guide to Student Data Privacy

July 31, 2018

 

 

This post was originally written and posted by Kevin Nelson for Stay Safe Online on July 25, 2018. 

 

Compared to a few decades ago, technology is now part and parcel of our lives and, even education, which was for the longest time a pretty ‘old-school’ (pun not intended) sector, has considerably warmed up to modern technological tools.

 

Indeed, the use of tech tools and devices including laptops and various classroom management software, has made it possible, easier and faster for educators, students, parents and other stakeholders to collaborate towards improving teaching and learning processes.

 

However, the use of digital systems and software in learning institutions sometimes necessitates students to provide personal information which in itself comes with lots of concerns regarding the safety, privacy and integrity of the data. This guide takes you through the whole concept in 5 questions with answers.

 

What Is Student Data?


Student data is any information collected, stored and compiled by educators, schools, relevant agencies and digital data managers on individual students. On a general level, it includes information such as a student’s name, age, gender, attendance report, grades, enrollment information or any other information needed by administrators for smooth student monitoring and management. The laws governing this type of information are more relaxed and minimal permissions are required to share. Student data may also contain Personally Identifiable Information (PII) that, as the name suggests, can be used to identify individual students. This includes addresses, social security numbers, full names and dates of birth, names of parents, and any form of biometric data. In most countries, laws governing the collection, management and sharing of student PII are more stringent, and breaches or offenses carry higher penalties.

 

Why Does Student Data Privacy Matter to You?


In the good old days, student data (mainly consisting of grades, attendance and disciplinary records) was kept under lock and key by school administrators and was only accessible to parents, teachers and even students on demand. Today, this data, along with PII like parents’ contacts, is sometimes shared with third parties –  particularly data and soft management companies in contravention of governing laws and regulations. As an educator, you need to be cognizant of the underlying ethical and legal procedures of sharing student data with such companies or you may find yourself in trouble. The main piece of legislation to this effect in the US is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that prohibits the sharing of student personal data with third parties without written permission from their parents. There may also be state or school laws that govern the storage and use of student data that educators must familiarize themselves with to avoid legal tussles with parents or their institutions.

 

What Educational Apps or Tools Can You Use to Avoid Privacy Issues?


We suggest only using tools and apps that have been vetted and approved by your school or the Department of Education. If a tool or device that you plan on using is not approved yet, request the school administration to vet it before you integrate it in your lesson plans. Be careful when applying or recommending to students non-educational tools like writing programs as they may not contain the necessary privacy safeguards to protect student data. As Edubirdies Chief Editor Lucas Cappel said, slow but sure beats fast and risky.

 

What Factors Should You Look at When Analyzing Which Tech Tools to Use?


In some instances, your students will come to you with suggestions on the apps to use in the classroom or at home. While by law you should stick to what’s approved by the school or government agencies, you may not be able to stop students from privately using other tools and programs. However, as their second guardian, you need to guide them in selecting only the tools that provide them with privacy guarantees regarding the data they submit. Similarly, your school may need your input when assessing a proposed tool.

 

Examples of questions you can use to get both the conversations going include:

Does the app or software require account registration? If yes, is any personal information required? What permissions does the app need to function?
Does it need access to one’s email, contacts or location details?
Do the app developers share personal details with other parties? If so, to what extent?

 

Depending on the answers to these questions, you can recommend or advise against suggested apps. Additional factors to look at include whether the app deletes stored data when the students delete their accounts and whether the developers or software vendors sell or provide behavioral data to advertisers for targeted advertising. Targeted ads are not acceptable for apps used for school or academic purposes as they collect location and browsing data falling under PII which is subject to different laws.

 

So, How Can You Enhance Student Data Privacy?


As with other forms of data, you can keep student data in your possession safe and secure by being alert and logically paranoid. To help you out, here are a couple of actions to take:

 

Keep All Apps and Software Updated – Outdated versions are usually more vulnerable to crashes, breaches and hacking which may expose the data stored to unauthorized access. Thus, keep all apps and software used in learning up to date on all devices.

 

Encrypt Sensitive Data – Make use of latest encryption technology such as SSH, SFTP and SSL to ensure that only authorized users get access to sensitive student information.

 

User Education – Teach your students to be cautious when providing personal information and the importance of having strong passwords. Above all, teach them to keep their usernames and passwords to themselves.

 

They say that the human element is the weak link to every technology and it’s hard to argue with that. Even so, with better knowledge of the underlying laws and commitment to the cause, educators can learn how to keep their students’ data private and secure.

 

 

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