5 Tips for Assuring Parents that Student Data is Protected

Check out some tips for assuring parents that student data is protected
Contributed By

H. L.

Assistant Principal

5 Tips for Assuring Parents that Student Data is Protected

Posted in Pro Tips | August 15, 2019

In his recent bestseller, Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman encouraged us to stop and smell the roses of technological progress amidst seemingly tumultuous change that is remaking human society. No pressure.

From Friedman's optimistic viewpoint we may be secure in the knowledge that computing power, big data and analytics, and other forces are transforming how we work, play, and yes, attend school in amazing ways. With that optimism comes a need for caution, however, as it applies to privacy concerns, especially for K-12 learners and their families. Here are a few ways to assure and work with parents in your district that student data is appropriately protected.

Be Open and Honest

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously stated that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants" in reference to transparency in public relations. While not applicable in every circumstance, the spirit of openness and honest dealings is critical when communicating with families about their rights under the law. Perhaps the most critical regulation with which schools must comply with regard to student privacy is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Many schools fulfill their obligations under FERPA with a boilerplate annual reminder buried in a PTA newsletter or student handbook. You can make sure it's placed up front as part of the annual student registration process. Try these strategies:

Communicate not only the law, but what it means in specific circumstances (e.g. discipline, especially at the high school level where suspensions are more common and 18-year-old students want to know more about the rights that transfer to them at that age). 

Ensure that teachers and administrators understand their obligations under the law. With so much student data readily available, especially electronically, the loose talk of the past can create real student privacy issues in the present. You can set the example.

Partner with Vendors

Schools enter into myriad contracts with vendors annually, especially in the Edtech space. Before doing so, districts should establish and communicate to parents a vetting process that, at minimum, analyzes a firm's commitment to student privacy and willingness to enter into a relevant privacy agreement. Just as we learned to ask clarifying questions in school, districts should ascertain the what, why, where and how of student data collection and use before engaging a company's services. Every third-party vendor selected by the district should be willing to be a full partner in protecting student privacy.

Teach Digital Citizenship Skills Across the Curriculum

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has set powerful standards for student digital citizenship, from developing and monitoring their own digital identities to managing their personal data and understanding how data collection technologies affect their online lives as well as "in real life" (IRL).

Digital citizenship is not just for use in computer class and should not just be one-shot conversations at the beginning of the year as part of technology license agreements or student bring-your-own-device (BYOD) plans. Integrate digital citizenship across the curriculum - as part of every classroom contract and in every interaction between students and technology and with other students. Communicate your digital citizenship initiative to parents, engage them in the conversation about how to make it stronger, and never miss a chance to show them how you are actively empowering their children to be good digital citizens - and thus more aware about safety and privacy issues - for the balance of their lives.

Provide Ongoing Professional Development for Staff

Digital citizenship isn't just for students. Your staff, especially those who may not be as comfortable with technology, must understand and be able to explain the importance of digital citizenship to students and their parents. There are free, comprehensive resources out there for schools and educators, such as those provided by Common Sense Media, and you can easily combine those resources with more formal, ongoing professional development (PD).

Connect and Educate Your Community Via Your LMS

Your learning management system (LMS) can bring it all together: student digital citizenship, teacher professional development, community engagement, and more. Your LMS provider should also be up front with you and your parents regarding the steps they take to protect student data.

Create a digital citizenship course for all freshmen that includes a module on personal privacy and the use and maintenance of online data. Develop a PD course and resource repository for staff. As part of the regular classroom experience, teachers can use the LMS to create digital citizenship-related assignments that involve discussion with and contributions from families. When educators sing the praises of their LMS, it is usually because the school uses the LMS as a true central hub for school, home, and community communication.

Privacy is Not a New Issue, the Technology Is

Personal privacy has been a hot topic since the time of the ancient philosophers. In the United States, the convergence of the structure of the Constitution, privacy, and unprecedented advances in technology have reinvigorated the privacy debate. As educators, we have a responsibility not only to understand how technology impacts the privacy of our students and the protection of student data, but to institute best practices and communicate the issues and our rationale to parents and community members. Protecting children in general takes collaboration; protecting student data requires nothing less.

Do you have any tips to share about working with parents and student data? Tell us on Twitter @Schoology

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