What is the Cloud?

A friend of mine said in a conversation “the cloud is a computer in another room.” Another friend looked at me when I asked him what the cloud was and he pointed to a room full of servers. So what does the cloud really look like? For the most part, it looks like this.


Today we do many different types of work in the cloud. If you have checked your email, you have used the cloud. When using the cloud, your computer or device connects with different servers in remote locations. Some of these servers are specialized for storage, while others are running applications. The cloud can be very useful when checking email or collaborating documents online with services like Google Docs.

So why is the concept of the cloud so controversial when it comes to student data and education? I believe the debate should not strictly be about the security and privacy of student data in the cloud, but whether that data is safer in the cloud than on a local server managed by a budget strapped school district. As more schools move into a digital world with managed databases providing real time student performance, schools need the ability to manage all this information. In order to do that, cloud services that remotely host this information provide an efficient, affordable and arguably safer environment for a school to operate. If each school hosted their own server they would need IT support staff on site to manage and secure their databases. Most schools have neither the budget nor enough people to maintain these systems. Often, they are reliant on parent volunteers.

And while many arguments support using cloud service providers, we must also look at the shortfalls in these systems. Recently, the Center on Law and Information Policy at the Fordham University School of Law conducted a research study on the privacy of student data in the cloud. One of the most interesting findings, for me, was that about 95% of school districts already use cloud services for managing school operations. But that most schools had poorly executed contractual agreements. School districts did not put in place adequate privacy protection policies for student records and access controls for different individuals in the schools were not clearly defined. Further, the study found that some of the contracts did not comply with FERPA’s requirement that data be deleted after it is no longer needed for the purposes it was provided. Should we be concerned? I think so. Schools and parents should be assured that student data is adequately protected by strong privacy policies and security controls. But these concerns are more with how the contracts are structured than with how secure the data is in the cloud.

Students have a right of ownership of their data and they should be informed of how their data is collected, managed and shared amongst different service providers. Schools need to understand what security controls are in place to protect their data. The Department of Education has provided guidelines on how FERPA applies to student data stored in the cloud and schools must ensure that their cloud service provider is following these guidelines in order to provide reliable privacy protections for students.

Considering the vast amount of student data stored in the cloud and in different educational apps, it is the responsibility of schools and cloud service providers to work hand in hand with students’ privacy rights in mind. And only with transparent security and privacy practices will schools and cloud service providers be able to demonstrate to students and parents they can trust their data is safe.


What do kids think of privacy and online safety?

What do you think a class of 5th graders would answer if you asked them if they should be allowed to have Facebook accounts? Do you think most of them would want to be on social media? Think again, most don’t believe they should.

Surprised? So was I. Recently, a class of 5th graders wrote persuasive essays on whether kids as young as 10 years old should have Facebook accounts. I was fortunate enough to be invited to their class to talk with them about their thoughts on online safety and privacy. Receiving student feedback is challenging and they can be brutally honest. But if we make a conscious effort to listen to students and their ideas and concerns we can gain great insight into what our talks about student privacy should be about. The biggest takeaway from the visit for me was that students care about their information and being safe online. They want adults to know that at the end of the day the focus should be on students and how we can protect their information. Whether it is with appropriate safeguards for online safety or protecting their privacy in schools with the educational software they use. Students want teachers and prospective schools to know about them as learners but they want to have control of the information they think is important for teachers (and schools) to know about them.

Brenda Leong, Fellow at the Future of Privacy Forum, and I sat down to talk about my class visit. Having a conversation with students highlighted the need to remember that our debates on student data privacy are about students and how it affects them.  It certainly brought the conversation back into focus.

You can watch our conversation here:

Protecting kid’s privacy in the classroom and beyond

iKeepSafe, the Internet Keep Safe Coalition is an organization that provides resources for parents, educators and policymakers who teach youth how to use new media devices and platforms in safe and healthy ways. Their vision – to see generation’s of children grow up safely using technology and the Internet to become full digital citizens.

They invited me to submit my thoughts for their blog. You can read it here – Protecting kid’s privacy in the classroom and beyond

I invite you to take a look at their website. It contains valuable resources on digital safety for parents and educators.

Educational technologies are always changing and this poses a great challenge to parents and educators as our main interest is to keep children safe but encourage the technology we think shall best support our young learners. The effective and cautious use of data can improve student’s’ school experience. It can ensure that each student is receiving the personalized instruction they rightly deserve.

But there are challenges in maintaining a safe environment for children when using educational software. It is imperative that parents are informed and involved in the decisions to allow their children to have accounts at educational websites. Reading Terms of Service, while tedious and uninspiring, is important. Bill Fitzgerald has a great primer on how to“triage” Terms of Service and Privacy policies. We must continually work at improving best practices and helping parents, educators and school districts understand their rights as digital citizens. We need a system that encourages and supports parents and students to be advocates for their privacy. For in their educational careers students will trip, fall and get up – and they must know that no one will punish them for this. We must build bridges of trust between parents, educators and ed-tech companies. We all need to be smart and read terms of service and privacy policies and decide whether they make sense, comply with COPPA and work for our children.

So what works for our children? Recently, a class of 5th graders wrote persuasive essays and one of the lines (amongst the many brilliant ones) was “Kids have brains.” The topic – “Should 10 – 11 year old kids have a Facebook account?” I was fortunate to be invited to their class to talk about Facebook, online safety and what they thought of their privacy. Kids can be more perceptive than we give them credit for, and in this conversation I learned that they are very much aware of how their information can be used.

Most kids did not think it was ok for them to have a Facebook account. Some worried about how safe it was while others didn’t want their information out “there” forever. Some said they should be allowed to have an account but had strong feelings about their parents helping them navigate the online world. Certainly eye opening. Others didn’t think adults cared about their privacy. They were surprised to know of the laws passed and debates taking place around the country. But the majority agreed that it is important for the right people to know information about them as students. As one student said “it’s useful if my teacher next year knows about me and how I learn because then they can help me.” Kids get it but they want a voice in the decision making process.

Protecting student data and privacy is a challenge. Let’s be smart and work together;, we have an opportunity to shift the conversation with students at the center of the discussion. It is the only way to protect kids. We can’t afford not to do so.

What is the Student Privacy Pledge?

More and more, students are using technology in school, from learning apps to online forums to class websites. And understandably, there is growing concern as to the efficacy of the privacy measures in place and the adequacy of the laws protecting student information. In response to this concern, two weeks ago the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) introduced the Student Privacy Pledge, which commits school service providers to the secure handling of data for K-12 students. But what does this really mean?

Basically the pledge holds accountable school service providers to the following –

  • Not sell student information
  • No behaviorally targeted advertising
  • Use data for authorized education purposes only
  • Not change privacy policies without notice and choice
  • Enforce strict limits on data retention
  • Support parental access to, and correction of errors in, their children’s information
  • Provide comprehensive security standards
  • Be transparent about collection and use of data

As of today, 32 school service providers made the pledge to keep data secure and private. You can see the list here. This pledge comes at a point where, according to trade group estimates, the pre-K – 12 education sector generates approximately $7.9 billion annually. Schools are increasingly adopting data driven technologies for learning apps and software; technology that needs student data to operate efficiently. The revenue generating numbers obviously create skepticism that the pledge is an empty set of words and a mere PR move by companies because it is not a legally binding document. But if companies violate their own public representations they could be subject to enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission under deceptive trade practices (Section 5 of the FTC Act). This is important. And though some might want to dismiss this, the FTC has charged companies with either deceptive or unfair practices. And even if there is no legal action against a company we know that a strong group of voices criticizing a company’s policies can create tremendous damage to a company’s reputation. Some call this “App Store death”. This pledge makes school service providers accountable for student’s data whether it is collected by the school and then passed to the vendor, or directly by the vendor via an app used by a student. By taking the pledge companies are making a public commitment to students, parents and schools to ensure the safe use of student information.

And while there is no substitute for a strong federal law, the pledge does address some of the weaknesses in FERPA. For example, the pledge applies to all student and personal data whether it is viewed as an “educational record” or not. It also applies whether the data is collected through the school or by the websites and the apps students use. It applies whether or not there is a formal contract with the school. The pledge promotes the transparency we have been asking for; transparency that is necessary to build trust amongst all stakeholders to ensure widespread participation. Parents and students have been stating, “don’t just say you are protecting student privacy, show us you are.” And as a parent, I encourage pledge signatories to do just that. For without it users will mistrust ed-tech products, hampering their adoption to the detriment of all.

I think the greatest value of the Student Privacy Pledge is that it establishes a common baseline of privacy principles that the ed-tech industry did not have before. Let’s use it to remind companies of the responsibility they have towards students, data and privacy. And while this does not create a uniform federal law or strengthen existing privacy laws, it provides a good framework for lawmakers and encourages dialogue between parents, ed-tech companies, schools and other stakeholders to ensure student data is safeguarded. As a parent, I appreciate a document stating a uniform commitment being issued by vendors in their role as stewards of student data.

I hope that this encourages other firms to sign on to the pledge to demonstrate their duty to be responsible data “citizens”. It is an interesting list of signatories. It is worth looking at who has and who has not signed on. And if not, why not?

The pledge goes effective January 2015 but it operates under a rolling admissions policy so companies can sign on to it at any time – no worries. If anybody needs a pen to sign on to the pledge, I have one you can borrow.


  The choice to provide parental consent in education is not that simple


All parents want to keep their children safe and protecting their privacy falls under this premise. So when we talk about student data, a parent’s first reaction is “let me decide if I want my child’s information to be used by the school or not”; essentially deciding whether to opt out of data collection for school use. At first glance, the option of choice is obvious – let parents decide what data is collected about their children and what ought to remain private. But when we look at the issue more deeply we see it is not that simple. Not all data are created equal. If parents opt out, it can prevent schools from efficiently managing the day-to-day operations of such administrative tasks as dispensing free lunch to students and organizing bus routes. Furthermore, how will teachers help students learn without access to their histories, including detailed information about their special needs affecting their school performance?

We need to critically look at the implications of our choices and recognize that we cannot address privacy in education in a vacuum. The issues of equity and discrimination in our schools today cannot be addressed without adequate information. We must be able to clearly determine whether we are truly serving our students. How can parents be assured that our schools are addressing these issues if they have incomplete data sets? Providing parents with consent forms for every data collection issue in school runs the risk to protect some but not all. And we shouldn’t ask parents to be privacy auditors either. What if a parent cannot understand a complex school contract or simply does not have time to read it? We risk excluding students from beneficial educational programs and therapies, if information about them is not in the system. When wealthy parents fight to protect their children’s privacy, because their children have access to the same (or better) technology at home, they may in effect deprive lower income families of such access, since their only access to such technology is in school. We need to critically examine the role of consent and question how in our attempts to protect the privacy of some we leave others behind.

Which takes us back to student ownership of their data. As we continue to have conversations of privacy and consent on data collection we must shift our focus to include students in the decision making process. If we do not do that, we relegate them to being passive participants in their education in which education and privacy becomes something that happens to students instead of something that belongs to them. For it is their education, that is at stake. And the opportunities open to them over the rest of their lives will depend on the quality of the education they receive as children.

All students deserve the right to privacy but they also deserve access to the best education possible. If parents do not give consent to information being collected about students what opportunities are we inadvertently denying our children? It is their information – their education, and in making decisions whether asking for parental consent or not, we must make them with all students in mind.




California’s new student privacy law – A law that protects student data privacy and fosters technological innovation?

The Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (SOPIPA) or SB1177 was signed into law last week. It has been called the first in the nation law that strengthens privacy protections for the personal information of California students while permitting innovation in education and technology. There have been many student data privacy laws enacted in recent legislative sessions but many focus on either restricting the types of data collected or mandating states and/or school districts improve their governance and infrastructure to safeguard student information. But asking a school district to improve its infrastructure is easier said than done, especially without supplying the funds for implementation. And restricting data collection can veer into the path of limiting school operations and fail to serve its students.

SOPIPA is interesting in that the law places the responsibility for ensuring student data privacy on the ed-tech industry. It directly addresses the way online service providers and apps can collect and use student data. It is important to recognize that software applications need to collect data in order to personalize the service students receive but also to maintain student records for teachers to keep track of grades, student progress, reading records etc. It is also worth noting that the new law allows these service providers to use the data they have to improve their products but they cannot use the information for targeted or “behavioral” advertising. The law does not unnecessarily impede the use of data and technology, which can stall under more restrictive laws. This is what I find of great importance. This premise fosters innovation in education technologies by enabling service providers to use the de-identified data at their disposal to develop products beneficial to all.

And while all this is good news, SB1177 is far from perfect. I am pretty sure that by now you know I stand on the side of student ownership of data. And I am disappointed at the lack of control given to students (and their parents) particularly regarding the deletion and retention of their data. Students and parents need to have a voice in how their data is collected and used and for how long it shall be retained. What happens when privacy policies and contracts change? If we do not have student ownership in mind, whose best interests are we serving when a privacy policy is updated? Will the law support access to and correction of student information or is the burden, again, on the school districts to review student information and ensure its accuracy?

There are also some points that require clarification. For example, what does the law define as “k-12 purposes”? Besides the services used in schools does the term include apps used outside of school by students without the school’s knowledge? And even though COPPA applies to apps generally used by the “under 13” crowd does SOPIPA protect students’ data when they use apps outside of school but the app is an “educational” one? I don’t believe this is addressed, and if it’s not, it is inadvertently creating a grey area of how student data is protected in these cases. This is where an update of FERPA and a well-delineated Federal standard is necessary. There needs to be a blanket Federal Standard that will address these issues when necessary and eliminate ambiguity as much as possible.

SOPIPA is a significant step forward. It provides a framework for stronger protections for student data and with a different (and interesting) approach than other state bills. It provides a good framework for other states to use, and I hope they do. I am encouraged to see the legislature promote collaboration, but we must not forget students in the process.

And don’t worry, there is time to debate this endlessly – the bill’s provisions will not take effect until January of 2016.



Students, technology and privacy can coexist.

Kids love technology, it’s shiny, bright and does a lot of fancy things. In some schools technology has become as prevalent as pencil and paper. With the introduction of smartboards, computers and educational apps, technology has become a staple in schools throughout the country. It can be an important tool to help kids in school. Recently, I read an article about a 10th grader lamenting the lack of technology in the classroom. And while he made some valid points as to the usefulness of technology, the article read very much like a paid advertisement. He was a fervent advocate of using a tablet in school and how this made High School a fun experience. The excitement is contagious and I understand it. I have seen first-hand what adaptive technology can do to help students with disabilities. A child with dysgraphia can use a tablet to take a picture of the board instead of writing notes by hand. There are apps that can similarly serve to improve the educational experience of students with disabilities.

But we must take a step back and think critically how much technology is necessary to help students and that we are protecting their privacy when employing technology that compiles information about our students.

I am an advocate for using technology in schools. I do not advocate for increased screen time but quality screen time. So rather than collecting as much data as possible, I propose a smarter collection of data. And in our efforts to improve the available technology and products we must not allow students to become testers for these new products. Earlier this year, Common Sense Media asked the educational technology industry to develop tough national standards for personal data collected about students and this message needs to be acted upon. Schools also need to understand the contracts they enter with so that third party vendors are held accountable for protecting student data and their privacy. We need to recognize that in order to purposely use technology we shall have to integrate the information at our disposal.

Technology and privacy do not need to be mutually exclusive. We all have a shared responsibility to protect student privacy. Parents need to be engaged in their children’s learning and schools must learn how to safeguard student data to make use of technology in the classroom. Technology companies have an obligation to ensure the data they hold in their custody is not commercialized and that it is kept secure and with adequate privacy restrictions.

Technology can be a great equalizer in education. It can enable us to deliver to children in underserved schools the same educational opportunities their more affluent peers take for granted. Just as we have to exercise caution in protecting student privacy, we must be cautious that in enacting safeguards to protect student data we do not impede the use of valuable technology.

The key for us is to build good guidelines for implementing technological change in an evolving landscape; that we are mindful that students are the end users and beneficiaries of this technology. They stand to gain tremendous opportunities but can also lose them if the technologies are unnecessarily restricted. We must work together to integrate technology and privacy in education in a manner that is balanced so we can all reap the rewards.


Is the collection of data from schools an invasion of students’ privacy?

Schools are increasingly using technology in a variety of settings and there is more record keeping of how students learn and information about them than ever before. Technology advocates tout its use and the ability to personalize a child’s education. Privacy advocates warn that vast amounts of personal data students generate can be misused.

In Room for Debate, The New York Times invited outside contributors to answer the question -Is the collection of data from school’s an invasion of student’s privacy? 

It’s an interesting debate with contributions from Khaliah Barnes, Tyler Bosmeny, Richard Kahlenberg, Jules Polonetsky and myself.

My contribution is below:

While there are surely benefits to the collection of student data, as a parent, I am concerned about the use of my children’s personal information. Schools and districts rely on students’ personal information (and test scores, behavioral records and, sometimes, health evaluations) to conduct day-to-day operations and the state relies on it to plan policy. Access to this data is important as it can alert to warning signs of learning disabilities so they can be addressed early and efficiently.

But what is the educational goal of collecting all the other information? Don’t our students have the right to learn imperfectly, and with the privacy for trial and error? It is difficult to justify data collection that may be used for commercial purposes if that data does not show a clear educational advantage. We must consider the implications this will have on our children and their future.

Parents need to understand what data is being collected, who has access to this information and what security protocols are in place at the school, district and state level to ensure that student data is kept private and secure. In a more practical vein, schools must also make smart decisions regarding what data should be collected about students for it to be meaningful at all.

And empowering students to have a larger role in deciding what ought to be included in their educational records would improve the value of the information: students would be invested in their data — as some are with grades, for example — and not merely passive participants, harboring concerns about their privacy. As more data is collected about students, including on their strengths and weaknesses, we must ensure that we do not inadvertently punish their failures and miss celebrating their successes.



Student data? Who owns it?

Students are at the center of all data generated in education and the debate centered on privacy, data access, and security needs to acknowledge data ownership. Who should be the owners of student data? I like to think that the answer is clear – students should be the owners of their data, even when cloud providers are being employed. Kathleen Styles, the US Department of Education Chief Privacy Officer said – The provider never “owns” the data, and can only act at the direction of the school or district. We need to define the roles in the education system so that we can make decisions of how student data is used. If we recognize students as having ownership of their data we can in turn trust parents and schools to act as stewards and technology companies as processors of such data.

Students should be able to decide what data about them is used, who has access and how security is maintained. Students every day provide information about themselves, and parents should not be asked to relinquish the personal information of our children unless there is a tangible return for this exchange of information.

However, we need to recognize that today schools are using technology in a variety of settings, from interactive dashboards and personalized apps for students with disabilities, to recording test scores, running reading records, class exams and sometimes, parent feedback. There is more record keeping of how students learn and information about them than ever before. But all this information would not be generated absent a student sitting in a classroom. Once we acknowledge students as owners of their data we can have a conversation in which our focus becomes improving educational outcomes. But if we do not do this we reduce them to innocuous data points in which the only debate is whether the information should be shared or not.

For the conversation on data ownership and privacy to move forward, we need interactive communication between the owners, stewards and processors of this data. Technology needs to acknowledge parental concerns and show value to students. The success of data analytics depends on having access to the sources of data. And in order to address student and school needs, technology companies can look at their datasets in order to gain insights about their students with the goal of increasing the learning potential in the classroom. Students empowered to help make decisions about their data can inform app developers what works and what doesn’t so that in turn technology can adapt and help them.

The conversation needs to be transparent and respectful of student privacy. Acknowledging the challenges in protecting student privacy while using technology and working together with students at the center of the discussion enables all stakeholders to collaborate at all levels to create trusted environments for learning. The guidelines for creating and using student data will need to evolve as technologies present new challenges that require new approaches to privacy, but we must not prevent the conversation from happening. Parents and students need a consistent and enforceable commitment to student privacy from the technology community to protect student information. If we recognize students as active participants and owners of the data we can move our conversation away from concerns of commercializing data to a cooperative environment that benefits everyone.

I am an advocate for using technology in the classroom, I have seen first hand the positive impact it can have when used appropriately as a complement to the instruction students receive from teachers. I am also fiercely protective of my children’s privacy but firmly believe we can achieve a balance. Let’s recognize who owns the data, who processes it, and together make decisions to protect and use it efficiently.

What does it mean to be in the “system”?

Recently, I was having a conversation with a group of friends. One of them broke the big news – she had just registered her daughter for Kindergarten. Certainly a milestone in a parent’s life. “Kindergarten!” “Wow” “Congrats!”

And right on cue, a friend said (jokingly) “Oh no! She is in the system.

We laughed and joked how life was about to change for this soon-to-be kindergartner. But the thought lingered in my mind. What exactly does it mean to be in “the education system”?

There is much talk about the collection of student data, how it relates to privacy, and sharing data with third party vendors. The conversations also veer into discussions of government overreach in collecting student data for state databases. And while I understand these concerns, the fact is schools collect a tremendous amount of information about students today. Some of the information collected goes into state databases called State Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS). The purpose of the SLDSs is to enhance the states’ ability to efficiently analyze education data and help make data driven decisions to improve student achievement as well as to facilitate research to direct resources where needed.

The SLDS program was created through the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA) in 2002. In order to support this (expensive) undertaking, the federal government has been awarding grants to states since 2005. By 2012 every state had an SLDS in place.

So what can be done with all this data? On a large scale, the data collected can help analyze chronic absenteeism or drop out rates, for example. It also helps schools and districts in their day-to-day operations. The Data Quality Campaign has a great info graphic illustrating the various ways data is used.

And while I don’t believe in collecting as much data as possible about my children, I do believe in maximizing the valuable information contained in these databases. This information can help states identify and address issues of equity and channel much needed resources into underserved schools. Big data sets can tell important stories. It would be interesting to look at which stories states focus on and which they choose to ignore. We know from previous decades that children who have breakfast do better in school, and so we have programs in place to provide that meal for children who won’t otherwise get it. And a recent Civil Rights Data Collection study (CRDC) from the 2011-12 school year showed racial disparities in discipline in the early years of schooling. This information identifies gaps and allows schools and districts to address discrimination issues and ensure equal access to education. What other causes and effects are waiting to be identified, now that we have the ability to evaluate some of these questions?

What I find especially interesting is how information contained in an SLDS is potentially useful to students and parents directly. How can we take this information and put it in the hands of students so they can make decisions about their education? We should seek ways to let students decide “what works” and provide mediums for them to be active participants in “the system.” Students should be empowered to tell their own educational stories; after all they are the main characters.

I recognize any collection of data poses some risk to student privacy. But without data we cannot make informed decisions. It is important for policymakers to erect safeguards so that student data is used responsibly. As data collection continues, we must weigh the privacy risks against the benefits of data analysis but the benefits of having the information can yield great results for students. It is essential that parents see tangible results of the progress that has been made in answering the questions we have using SLDS data. Parents must be able to trust that their children’s data is secure and being managed responsibly, much as we rely on our banks to handle our electronic finances. The more trust parents have in the way their children’s data is used, the better the opportunity for collaboration that will improve educational outcomes.

There is no question that the topic of student data collection and privacy is personal and emotional, but we must deal with specifics and be correct about the facts. There is great potential for student empowerment in enabling students and their parents to be advocates and owners of their learning. We have the data, let’s use it effectively and responsibly.