Privacy in the Age of Covid-19

Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels

In my original post about privacy from course 2, I reflected on my personal views student and teacher privacy in regards to their educational technology usage. In short, I didn’t consider much about student privacy as we were confined to a only a few educational websites and Seesaw.  I found that almost all of them followed regulations under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) or the Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that help protect the privacy of students. 

With the uncharted territory and uncertain end date of Covid-19, schools and teachers were tasked to find alternatives to transition to online learning both quickly and easily.  Free offers from educational technology companies started pouring in one by one.  It’s no wonder that teachers and even tech coordinators had little time to explore every resource and even less time with evaluating their privacy policy.  It’s not that privacy isn’t important, but with the current situation, there were other concerns taking precedence. 

Privacy in Schools

In general, as a school, protecting student privacy wasn’t extremely hard.  Sensitive materials were filed away in locked drawers, meetings were conducted behind closed doors (albeit with glass walls), visitors had to have identity cards when entering campus and there was policies regarding photos of children and to whom and how they were shared.  It was easier to protect student privacy when we’re all there in the same place but how do you continue  to protect students without the protection of the physical walls?  What does this mean for student privacy when all of our interaction are virtually? Just like so many other things, these issues became more apparent during virtual learning.  

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Video Conferencing for School

As countries began to socially or physically distance themselves, video conferencing became the norm.  Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Google Hangout were being used for work, school, and home.  For educators, this became our opportunity to host online classes synchronously and for others, this gave them opportunities to continue their life while social distancing apart.  Students had the could “walk” at their virtual graduation, people could have birthday parties, family could connect, work meetings could take place and most importantly people were able to relieve the negative social/emotional impact of socially distancing. But what does that mean for privacy when we don’t have physical walls to separate students from the outside world?

How can we protect students’ privacy when everything we’re doing is now online?

Image shared in the China Edu Tech WeChat Group regarding Zoom

Our school decided to use what was already built into our school model (Microsoft and Seesaw) – which also meant that these have been vetted in regards to their privacy policy.  While Microsoft Teams was a great choice for us;  we recognized that there were other options.  With some great features such as the ability to see all students and having options to raise hands or breakout rooms, Zoom was growing in popularity among many schools.  Like many companies; Zoom offered a free upgrade for unlimited minutes for lessons but as many of us have learned; “when something is too good to be true, it probably IS to good to be true”.  During this time of need, not everyone was able to read the fine print and in many cases, the fine print was confusing.  Did the free upgrade also include the same privacy policy that was granted with the paid accounts? 

It was in one of my PLN, that this question regarding Zoom came into discussion.  I am a member of a China Edu Tech WeChat Group with over 340+ educators that are based in China.  This group chat is like a twitter feed that is specifically for educators using technology with the limitations of being in China.  There is no mention of the big G (no not God, but the other one) but lots of questions regarding application dependencies on VPN or network issues, etc.  The educators in this group took an active role in clarifying Zoom’s privacy policies and updating the group as we were all in similar positions.   Within this group, another educator was able to speak to a person from Zoom directly.  Using the free upgrade was not tantamount to the education version of Zoom.  All data, images, and videos would NOT belong to the school, and Zoom would have the right to sell any of it to a third party.  Other schools were using Zoom very successfully and parents were happy with the results and how easy it was to use and so there was a lot of pressure from our school community to switch over to Zoom. To be fair, even I was using Zoom for personal video calls with friends and family. 

A Friday Night Zoom Chat during Covid-19 Quarantine

Our School

In this situation, we tried to answer the big question of “does it matter how much we are protecting if parents and families can’t use it?”  Should we be focusing on what is easy and convenient for parents instead of the rights of the students? If anything, my time with COETAIL has taught me that student privacy should be protected.  We can’t lose sight of the fact that a quick fix might create a bigger problem in the long run.  In the NY Times article, Zoom Privacy Lessons, Brian Chen discusses what we are sacrificing in the name of convenience. He discusses the ability to assess risk but students don’t always have that wisdom. As adults in the time of Facebook and Google, we are still grappling with how much of our privacy has been leaked or sold to others.  How can we ask our students to understand this when we ourselves are still struggling to comprehend?  We are more aware of the risks that we take when we put anything online.  The basic assumption for many people in my generation is that once it’s online, it’s out of our control.

Zoom is a great product but we felt uncomfortable going down the path of allowing our students data and privacy to be owned by an outside organization or company.  We decided to go educate our community about privacy policies and train them on how to use Microsoft Teams.  There was a lot less pushback from the community once articles about zoombombing and privacy issues came to light. 

“A product’s being great just isn’t good enough if it’s lousy at protecting our privacy.” 

Brian X. Chen – New York Times

As educators of the 21st Century, we are simultaneously protecting our students as well as teaching them how protect themselves online.  While the skill sets for our students are changing, our teaching expectations are also evolving.  We have to consider if the companies we are trusting with our student data is worthy of that trust.  Even though the world right now is in a very different place, it is important that we are still advocate for our students – even more so now that their whole world is online.  Considering the risks online is no different than considering the risk when we take them out on field trips.  It is harder to find the dangers or potholes online however but it is still part of our responsibility as educators.  This is an area we need to step up and figure out because our online presence grows larger and larger.

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