Back to School Privacy
James Ward
James Ward • Sep 02

Back to School Privacy

by James Ward

The last week of August is a very strange time, and not only because August is preternaturally long — it sometimes feels like it’s an entire season unto itself. It’s even more confusing because it runs smack into the ever-earlier arrival of the drink which must not be named, but whose presence means it’s time for sweaters and flannel, even when it’s 90 degrees out. You know the one I mean.

"The air temperature is higher than the coffee temperature, but OMG FALLLLL."

But this time of year surely means, above all, that it’s back to school. The timeframes vary depending on location, but sometime from the second week of August to the second week of September, kids go back to classes and parents scramble to find the appropriate kind of Kleenex box to send in. This year, of course, is going to be another roller coaster of wondering about lockdowns, vaccines, and remote learning. Managing back to school in the midst of the pandemic is difficult enough, but there are trends that will make things even more complicated, and that bear thinking about. Here are some of the key issues we’re watching when it comes to primary/secondary education, privacy, education tech, and surveillance.

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Performance Metrics

We’re used to seeing performance reviews in the workplace, and tests have been a part of evaluating student achievement since all memory runneth not to the contrary. But school districts around the world turned to technology to ascertain how much their students were learning during remote school sessions, and if there is one truth about technology, it’s that it is very hard to de-digitize an experience. It may not be that every classroom will equip the eye-tracking monitors to check if kids are paying attention (though some surely will), but it’s hard to imagine that online testing and performance analysis is going to disappear soon.

In one sense, this isn’t terribly novel or problematic: efficient tools for checking on how much a student has learned made good sense. The pressing question is just how efficient those tools are, and how much predictive value do they offer. Put another way, if a tool identifies areas where a student needs additional support and then helps teachers craft a course of study that helps the student receive that support, I think no one should be concerned. But when the tools, in the absence of other metrics, determine that a student is going to receive a certain grade, irrespective of their teacher’s own view, we start to have a problem.

Sound far-fetched? It shouldn’t: think about how the GCSEs and A-levels went in the UK last year and this year. Teachers provided their own estimate of what their student’s final grades would be and submitted them for review. But when the exam regulator in the UK sent back final grades for students, they were substantially lower than what was predicted. Why? The government’s algorithm — never explained clearly and opaque, to say the least, in its use — concluded that the students’ could not possibly have scored that well. Now, you can debate whether it wouldn’t have been appropriate to give this year’s graduating students some slack because, you know: pandemic. But what’s certainly clear is that the technology the regulator used had troubling, even bizarre components. For example, last year it based grades, in part, on post code, which means that students who come from post codes with lower performing schools had their grades downgraded in turn. Of course, this means that high performing students from not-so-great schools were disproportionately harmed, one of the many reasons the regulator did an about face and raised the year-end grades. 

The lesson? New isn’t always better, and if you deploy technologies and systems without thoughtful planning, you’re going to end up in a bad position.

He's...he's actually the regulator.

Zoomers and Boomers and Rumors, Oh My!

It’s a fair bet that at least part of this coming school year will take place remotely for a good number of kids, as we adjust to new variants. That means a return to where we were last year: kids logging into classrooms via Zoom, Hangouts, or Teams, and teachers attempting to keep them engaged. At this point, there is likely a sense of muscle memory to the process, but it will, nevertheless, be a substantial disruption.

Why? Because it is almost impossible to manage anything via videoconference. The phenomenon was everywhere: tiredness, inattentiveness, acting out, refusal to attend meetings — and that was the adults.  Zoom Fatigue is a real thing, and it manifested itself not only in classrooms but in the meetings administrators and teachers had to figure out how to run a school that wasn’t in a school. There are still a variety of views on how successful remote learning is in theory, but as a concept, most students felt that it left much to be desired, with many simply sitting in front of videoconferences for up to six hours a day. Even the occasional pet or baby cameo isn’t enough to liven that kind of slog.

Okay, it isn’t always enough.

There’s another aspect to remote learning that merits action: curbing abuse of remote tools for bullying and other inappropriate conduct. The good news is that remote learning has made cyberbullying more difficult, largely because student interactions moved to fora where any messaging was recorded and kept (that’s right: Zoom is recording all of your messages and sometimes even sharing them, so keep your snark in bounds). On the other hand, inbound messaging, zoombombing, and other problems exploded as remote-schooling became common. Parents need to be on the lookout for both, and keeping schools accountable for their plans to deal with them.

Monitoring Tools

We have to make this point every time we talk about education and privacy: surveillance and monitoring are facts of life, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t questions to ask. 

Videocameras in the classroom are nothing new, but the newest range of monitoring tools in the classroom help keep children safe, identify issues before they develop into problems, and serve as a complement to the teacher, who likely cannot handle burgeoning class sizes and half-present, half-remote scenarios. At the same time, these tools are often far more intrusive, and have the possibility of desensitizing children to surveillance in an environment where it is most critical for them to feel safe and “seen,” not “watched.”

A major consideration here is how to identify what technology is coming into the classroom and why. Most of the time, administrators will roll out schoolwide programs with a little bit of notice, but individual classrooms often simply start using tools without any fanfare. This can be good, because it allows for experimentation, but schools are not immune to the allure of new tools that promise to be revolutionary without delivering the goods (which is why your eighth grade teacher had a laser disc player on that rolling TV stand).

A sure sign of a good day.

There are a variety of laws that cover the educational sphere, but they don’t necessarily change much in how parents control their children’s experience in the classroom. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) sounds promising, but it is largely about the protection of student records, rather than student privacy. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) goes a little further in empowering parents, mainly by requiring parental consent for online activities and interactions by enterprises or apps and with children under 13. Again, not much regarding the classroom, where schools have fairly wide discretion to decide how to act. So, in the absence of empowering laws, parents have to take oversight into their own hands.

Things to Consider

  • Ask what kind of technology and measurement tools will be used in your child’s classroom. Get an idea of how they work, who will see the results, and how much of your child’s time will be spent using them.

  • Thoroughly check out the privacy policies and practices of any device or app your child will use. Pay particular attention to whether there is a chat functionality, and whether the chat is limited to members of the class or not. In-app chat functions are a major privacy/security/safety risk, but one that is not always vetted properly.

  • What account is taken for the difficulties of lessons conducted remotely? Will breaks, offline activity, and individuation be a priority? How will faculty and staff be reachable? What support measures are being put in place for students and staff alike?

  • Who is making choices about what technologies and systems the school uses? Is there a dedicated process, perhaps one that you can become involved in, or at least secure a promise of transparency?

These questions really boil down to one premise: it’s not enough to simply assume that there is a plan and that it’s going to work. Schools are, by and large, doing everything they can to make the best of a challenging situation. But the shortcuts that make things seem easier to manage generally come at the price of accountability and privacy. That’s typically not a price worth paying. Ultimately, it’s crucial to find a way to prioritize both privacy and effective tools for growth, because it’s crucial for kids to understand that one should never come at the expense of the other: they’re two sides of the same coin.

The greatest educator of the 1980s.

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James Ward
James Ward

James Ward is a lawyer, privacy advocate, and fan of listing things in threes. Nothing he says here should be considered legal advice/don’t get legal advice from social media posts. He promises he’s not as smug as he looks in his profile picture.

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