Student Data Privacy: A Who, What, Why and How

Student data privacy

School districts are mandated to protect student data, but it is a difficult task when rules and regulations are still in development and vary between districts.

Rapid advancements made in and with technology have permeated many, if not most, aspects of our everyday lives; many of the political, workforce, and healthcare systems in the U.S. have integrated technology-enabled processes to increase efficiency and effectiveness, and you’d have a hard time finding an industry or profession that isn’t reliant on some major technological advancement that wasn’t around a couple decades ago. With these advancements comes the collection of data – millions upon millions of pieces of information collected and analyzed over time for individual technology consumers – which, in many cases, is sold to third-party outlets to use for marketing and decision-making purposes. For example, have you ever wondered how that item you placed in your online shopping cart has magically appeared in an advertisement on your social media feed? Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as a “sign” to purchase the item (although companies sure hope we think so!), but a highly systematic and targeted marketing tactic made possible through the collection and sharing of data between companies in real time.

When it comes to the sheer amount of data collected, education is no exception and the sensitivity of the personal data, when collected from students, is great. Like data privacy in most sectors, the rules and regulations regarding student data privacy are still playing catch-up in comparison to the numerous technology tools and platforms that currently saturate the market. The challenge for schools, districts, states and vendors is how to define these privacy policies and ensure the ethical collection, use, and protection of students’ personal data. We work with districts across the country to organize, streamline and analyze edtech processes so that administrators can understand the available technology, find out whether it is getting appropriate use and whether that use is leading to measurable student benefits, and, in a grand sense, gain control over their school’s or district’s edtech. Having control is an essential first step toward compliance and, with a comprehensive edtech management system, it is within reach, even in a rapidly evolving and shifting landscape.

In the remainder of this post, we are sharing some essential facts regarding student data privacy, as well as how LearnPlatform provides a solution to these needs while preserving districts’ budgets and protecting your district from the consequences of noncompliance. The following sections outline a who, what, why and how of student data policies in the U.S., and what this could mean for both the developers and implementers of edtech within classrooms.

Who is affected by student data policies?

Student data is an especially important topic in K-12 education, as almost all students are under the legal age (typically 18 years old) required to consent to technology platforms’ terms of use. This places a higher level of responsibility on educators and policymakers to impose clear guidelines that protect the collection and use of student data.

Those impacted by data policies in education include: students and parents; schools and districts; states; and technology vendors. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) provides an in-depth view of the rights and responsibilities for each party. Here are the relevant links for each audience:

What are some of the biggest challenges related to edtech and student data privacy?

Maintaining data privacy compliance is one of the most challenging aspects of managing technology on a large scale. There are numerous individual challenges within this area of responsibility, but a few that most often manifest are:

Tracking the school’s or district’s compliance status is a mystery, so it is difficult to know what areas need to be addressed or improved.

With the number of different edtech tools in use in many districts and the shifting regulations and requirements around data use, it won’t be a surprise that tracking compliance status is a common challenge. When this becomes a problem, administrators may be unsure if the district is doing a good enough job keeping kids and data safe, including if all tools in use are keeping data safe. The uncertainty may begin as early as the procurement stage if leaders are not sure where to start in planning for compliance.

Keeping the organization knowledgeable and up-to-date is difficult.

This can be especially challenging when edtech is used district-wide. When there is no easy way to communicate new tools and products, especially when educators return from conferences and have information they should share, districts may miss opportunities to let educators know about newly available tools that meet all necessary requirements, and how they should be used in order to protect data.

The district isn’t using tools the right way, and/or administrators are unsure if tools are being used the right way.

Without the ability to analyze edtech use school-wide or district-wide, it’s impossible to know if the right tools are being used and if they are being used appropriately. The ability to analyze usage - and do it quickly - is an important step toward identifying shortcomings so they can be corrected and compliance can be ensured.

Why leaders are turning to LearnPlatform and how it helps.

As the number of edtech tools increases to meet a variety of educator and student needs, the decision-making process can easily become overwhelming. LearnPlatform provides a comprehensive-yet-digestible overview of the edtech tools available that allows educators to manage and share an active, living list of products - including those approved, pending, reviewed and denied, and where the status is unknown. The challenges listed in the previous section are just a few of many that districts are facing, but each of them are prime examples of common, understandable challenges that LearnPlatform can help administrators address.

As previously stated, the sheer number of tools available can be daunting. The vetting process includes multiple steps and rigorous research, including identifying when student information is captured through both data input (log-in information) and data capture (user action records); determining if this information falls under personal identification information (PII); and keeping data secure for students. Many times, if there’s not an established process in place, these steps are left to individual teachers wanting to innovate in their classroom, leaving them with either many hours of research to do, or, on the flip side, not having the time to do the research at all. Each outcome is harmful in a different way. In such an environment, it is impossible to know, at the school or district level, whether or not you are in compliance, and to identify particular areas that need to be improved. LearnPlatform allows leaders to get full control and visibility of edtech, leading to the configuration of effective edtech management process that ensure compliance.

When it comes to keeping the organization up-to-date, every leader understands the challenges of communication and, the larger the district, the more challenging it becomes. But, as challenging as communication can be, leaders also understand that it’s crucial for every educator to understand and comply with regulations. LearnPlatform is able to streamline communication between administrators and teachers, informing both on the tools available, and which tools comply with the relevant regulations and the school’s or district’s policies. This removes the burden of communication by giving everyone easy access to the same accurate information.

For leaders who either know their district isn’t using tools the right way, or are unsure whether educators are using them appropriately, many times finding a solution can go back to the beginning: determining where to start and making a plan. Compliance doesn’t just begin once tools are in use; planning can start at the procurement stage. LearnPlatform helps leaders avoid non-compliance in the purchasing, implementation, evaluation, and management processes, so that schools and districts can ensure compliance from the beginning and stay away from tools that will cause issues.

Ensuring student data privacy is one of many objectives of effective edtech management, and it is an essential one. In the next post on student data privacy, we take a deeper look into the ethical use of student data and how our team of researchers and technologists help administrators manage, analyze and improve impact across their learning ecosystem.