Ed-Tech Decisions Best Made at District Level, Researchers Say

Associate Editor

Decisions about cloud-based education technology should be made at the district level, at least at this point in time, advise three researchers from the Student Privacy Initiative at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

That was one of three recommendations from a report called “Framing the Law and Policy Picture: A Snapshot of K-12 Cloud-Based Ed Tech and Student Privacy in Early 2014,” released by the initiative.

“Data is being shared online in fundamentally different and new ways that may be transformative,” said Alicia Solow-Niederman, co-author and project manager at the Berkman Center, in a presentation with the release of the paper on Tuesday. 

With the fast-moving landscape of ed-tech adoption, growing volume of student data generated from it, and questions about the privacy of that data, school leaders and policymakers are trying to find a balance between the opportunity to use data to advance student learning, and the need to protect the privacy of data generated.

The researchers acknowledge that no “bright line rule” can strike an ideal balance between simultaneously protecting student privacy and preserving innovation in the development of ed-tech. But their goal with the report is to provide recommendations that they hope will guide decision-makers at the school district, local, state, and federal government levels as they consider cloud-based ed-tech.

Besides centralizing ed-tech decisions with the appropriate leaders, districts should also consider producing their own pre-vetted app stores or catalogs that teachers can pull from so they “don’t have additional unnecessary levels to go through” in making choices about ed-tech, and can focus on the “real-time needs of the classroom,” said Leah Plunkett, a co-author who is also an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, in a presentation of the paper.

Schools and districts could also “band together (and) use their buying power to collectively consider what sorts of contracts, what sorts of apps and services, do reflect the spirit and letter of the law,” said Solow-Niederman.

The researchers advised that policy makers and the industry consider adopting a “user-friendly labeling” of cloud-based ed tech products to increase transparency about how data is shared, and encourage compliance with parental consent and other legal requirements.

Ed-tech industry providers, meanwhile,  should look into adopting so-called “Fair Information Practice Principles”—such as minimizing the amount of data collected—and other best practice standards to increase data security and protection, the researchers said. 

“…for cloud-based ed tech providers that want to be repeat customers with schools and districts, it would be prudent to make products whose default set up is not just for legal compliance (by schools and providers) but also for [Fair Information Practice Principles] or other best practice compliance,” the report said.

Earlier this year, the Software & Information Industry Association, a trade organization for the industry, released best practice recommendations for the industry, and other industry groups are working on steps to protect student data privacy. Guidelines have been released by a number of organizations, including the Consortium for School Networking—which partnered with the Berkman Center—on a K-12 Privacy Toolkit for School Leaders.

The full report from the Student Privacy Initiative at the Berkman Center is available here.



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