Jul 01 2021

ISTELive 21: Think Before You Click to Protect Student Data, Privacy Expert Tells Educators

Teachers could be transmitting student data unknowingly by using voice assistants, biometric scanning, social media and even AR/VR in their classrooms.

Is that piece of technology legal? This was the question that ran through Kathy Mansfield’s mind as she visited a second-grade classroom and saw the teacher using a voice assistant.

“Alexa, how many more minutes is it until recess?”

Alexa responded, “It’s 15 minutes until recess.”

Then the teacher asked, “Alexa, what’s the weather outside today?” Alexa answered, “It’s 71 degrees outside with a slight northwest breeze.”

The exchange left Mansfield, a privacy advocate, uneasy. It also inspired the Wednesday evening presentation she gave at ISTELive 21, the virtual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education.

In a session called “Alexa and Hand Scans and Student Privacy, Oh My!” the former educational technology coach at Comal Independent School District in Texas shared that she wondered who could use a voice assistant in a classroom setting. Was it listening all the time? Was it recording student voices? Was it recording pieces of student educational records? Was it tracking student class schedules and locations?

As a doctoral candidate studying instructional systems design and technology, Mansfield was well aware of technology’s value to society and in educational settings. However, she was concerned about the massive amount of student data that educators could be unintentionally exposing to the world.

And she is not alone. She shared a 2015 Marketplace survey in which 79 percent of parents of children in third through 12th grades reported feeling somewhat, very or extremely concerned about the privacy of their child’s data.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Learn how to protect student data when using online and emerging tech.

The Risky Tools That Could Be Illegally Collecting Students’ Data

Mansfield said when it comes to student privacy, educators must consider their behavior around apps, biometrics, devices and social media.

“Sharing your students’ records is dangerous and against the law,” Mansfield said. “It’s our job as educators … to model digital citizenship, protect our kids and help our kids protect themselves.”

She noted that voice assistants, drones, virtual reality headsets and other technology could be collecting information on students’ voices, moods, blood pressure, heart rates, body movements and more. Sharing student photos on social media, she said, could also open them up to facial recognition software that can scrape their images and place them into databases. Even though some schools have installed contactless devices such as eye, face and hand scanners, Mansfield advised using caution and getting a better understanding of what data the devices are collecting.

These tools use a variety of data collection methods that could make students easily identifiable, she said. Educators are responsible for knowing what the tools do with this information before using them, Mansfield said, as some companies sell the data to third parties that could use it for nefarious purposes. She added that with the growing number of data breaches happening in K–12 environments, educators should try to reduce the amount of student data that’s accessible to cybercriminals.

MORE FROM ISTELIVE 21: One Texas district shares how it remotely secured 91,000 devices.

4 Ways to Keep Your Students’ Personally Identifiable Data Safe

Before educators click, Mansfield said, they should stop and think about keeping their students’ data safe. She advised the following:

  1. Understand if a tool is appropriate for classroom use. Some tools and services have age restrictions, and others are approved only for personal or home use. If teachers are thinking about using a video streaming service to show a documentary in their classrooms, for example, Mansfield recommended connecting with their library instead to get appropriate access to documentaries.
  2. Engage your IT department before downloading or using a piece of tech in class. “Please know that when you sign a contract or use a program and your district hasn’t approved it, you’re actually signing your district up for that, and you can make them liable,” she said. Your IT department can also help you vet these tools, she said.
  3. Change the terms of the user agreement. Mansfield said most users have only two choices: accept the terms of the user agreement for these tools wholesale or don’t use the technology. However, she said, sometimes schools can band together and work with a provider to adjust the terms of the user agreement to make certain tools safer for children in an educational setting.
  4. Know the law. Mansfield also encouraged educators to get familiar with federal laws, including the Children’s Internet Protection Act, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protect students’ online data. They can also review ISTE toolkits for educators and parents.

Mansfield has made her presentation available online with links to more resources.

Join EdTech as we provide written and video coverage of ISTELive 21. Bookmark this page and follow us on Twitter @EdTech_K12.

recep-bg/Getty Images