scorecardAs Zoom classes take over during the pandemic, edtech companies provide a lifeline, but only for schools and parents willing to surrender their students' privacy
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As Zoom classes take over during the pandemic, edtech companies provide a lifeline, but only for schools and parents willing to surrender their students' privacy

Tyler Sonnemaker   

As Zoom classes take over during the pandemic, edtech companies provide a lifeline, but only for schools and parents willing to surrender their students' privacy
Tech7 min read
  • The rapid shift to virtual learning this spring has blurred the line between students' homes and schools, immediately sparking privacy scandals like "Zoom bombing."
  • But the new school year has brought new and unexpected side effects, like parents appearing on screen intoxicated or nude and school officials calling the police on a Black student for playing with a toy gun.
  • Privacy advocates and education experts worry the increased reliance on edtech tools has forced parents to choose between keeping their kids' schooling on track and protecting their civil liberties.
  • Citing tech companies' shaky track record on privacy, they're seeking to empower schools, parents, and students to make smart choices about the tools they use and exercise their rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit fast and hard this spring, and just as quickly, schools across the US were forced to switch to virtual learning.

While Zoom classes and other online tools provided a valuable lifeline to keep students connected and provide some relief for parents, they also immediately sparked privacy concerns, like "Zoom bombing" (a trend where people join video classes uninvited, sometimes bombarding them with pornography or slurs), unwitting data sharing, and creepy digital test proctoring.

"When schools were shut down in March when the pandemic and the lockdown started, I think we were in survival mode," Cheri Kiesecker, the cochair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, told Business Insider.

"Unless school districts really had privacy on their radar ahead of time, it was: 'How do we keep students connected?' And, 'We'll worry about the privacy issues later,'" she said.

With the new school year in full swing, many schools still haven't dealt with those issues. Now they're mutating in unexpected and even more serious ways.

Last month, Colorado school officials called the police on — and then suspended — a 12-year-old Black student after he showed a toy gun during his Zoom class. A Florida teacher also pleaded with parents to "have on proper clothing" and avoid "appearing with big joints" after she and other teachers in her district said they observed parents partially nude and using drugs and alcohol in the background of virtual lessons.

As more side effects arise, privacy and edtech experts are scrambling to help administrators, teachers, and parents keep students engaged and learning without completely clicking away their civil liberties.

Redrawing the boundaries

"We've gone from the separation between home and school to a complete breakdown of the boundaries between the two without really training teachers or parents and guardians or students for what that means for their own privacy and learning," Dr. Torrey Trust, an associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Business Insider.

Trust said teachers were hardly given any advice on how to talk to students about setting up their space at home to ensure they aren't accidentally sharing private information — details, she said, that could subject students to bullying or require a teacher to report them to school administrators or even law enforcement.

"For many children, this can be uncomfortable. The inequities that exist in education are even more visible in this format," Heather Johnson, an associate professor of science education at Vanderbilt University, told Business Insider.

Even though the distractions may look different through a computer screen, teachers still fundamentally face the same challenge of whether, when, and how to respond to incidents and still cover the material, according to Johnson.

"Sometimes, if you stop instruction to respond to it in the moment, it can make the situation worse. So calling out a parent who's drinking a beer is really calling out the student, which isn't fair to the student who's not engaging in the behavior," she said, adding that while teachers should intervene if they're concerned about a child's safety, "it's not the teacher's responsibility, though, to manage the parent's behavior."

Situations like the one in Colorado also raise new and concerning legal questions because of how they blur the line between public and private places, according to Kiesecker.

"Is that actually a Fourth Amendment violation of warrantless search and seizure because you didn't invite them in your home, yet your kid is getting suspended or police are being called because of something that was seen on Zoom," she said.

"Parents and students are upset enough that they're seeking attorneys and actually saying: 'You know what? You are violating my civil rights by requiring me to have my camera on and have the background of my home,'" she added.

The edtech calculus

Beyond the challenges teachers, students, and parents face as they learn how to use new technologies effectively, safely, and legally, there's also the more basic question of whether they should use a specific tool in the first place — or what the trade-off is for doing so.

Free edtech offerings, from startups and tech giants alike, have exploded since March, with a list compiled by THE Journal now totaling more than 400. Zoom, Google, and Microsoft have made their videoconferencing features free or highly discounted for educators, helping them acquire millions of new users in the process, and the pandemic has minted several edtech unicorns this year, including Udemy, ApplyBoard, Course Hero, and Quizlet.

But those tools still come at a price.

"My biggest worry is anytime something's free, they're getting money somehow, and almost always it's from collecting student data," Trust said.

Her concerns are already being validated: Zoom was sued in April over accusations that it was sharing data with Facebook without telling users. Two children sued Google over suspicions that it collected their biometric data. And tens of thousands of students across the US have filed petitions demanding schools abandon their use of intrusive proctoring tools like Proctorio, ProctorU, and Honorlock.

"When all of these companies that seem to be doing the right thing and sharing free access to their tools, teachers were jumping on it, and they weren't really reading the terms of service or privacy policy in depth enough," she said.

Despite the privacy concerns, many of these tools have proved invaluable for schools and parents trying to minimize disruptions to students' education during the pandemic, such as recorded class sessions.

"Protections are important, but I do think it is important to have these videos of classes, especially in some of our districts where the students just, for whatever reason, cannot connect at the time of class, and they're able to catch up later," Johnson said, alluding to the digital "homework gap" that has disproportionately affected Black, Latinx, and lower-income students.

A survey of 1,200 parents conducted by the Center for Democracy and Technology in May and June found that "solid majorities believe technology is 'worth the risk' to deliver key education benefits" such as clear and timely communication, engaging learning environments, individualized instruction, and "learning continuity during man-made or natural emergencies."

Yet that same CDT survey, which showed that "student data privacy and information security are mid- to low-level concerns of parents, outranked by concerns about overall well-being of the student" also said "concern increases as parents are exposed to more information about student data privacy and security."

When the survey asked about scenarios where law enforcement might gain access to student records or schools might collect biometric data, Black and Hispanic parents' levels of concern were especially high.

Kiesecker said students and parents shouldn't have to sacrifice their privacy rights for a quality education in the first place, however.

"It feels to me like it's a choice of your civil liberties or attending school. And students shouldn't be put in that position," she said. "The price of attending public education shouldn't be giving up your privacy, especially for a child; children's privacy should be the most sensitive and the most protected."

It takes a village — and stronger laws

Trust and Kiesecker agreed students, parents, and educators could take advantage of the benefits of certain edtech tools without giving up their privacy rights but that the burden shouldn't fall entirely on individual teachers, parents, or even schools.

Trust said teachers should run new digital tools by their school's IT department, which may be more knowledgeable about privacy issues, while school districts and administrators need to take a proactive role in developing policies around technologies that "support teachers and learning how to find and evaluate and use technology in their classrooms."

She also worked with her students to develop a free guide for teachers on how to evaluate digital tools, including a chapter devoted to understanding privacy, adding to a growing list of resources meant to empower teachers and parents, such as:

Ultimately, however, Kiesecker and other privacy advocates say there needs to be stronger legal protections and incentives for both schools and companies to look out for students' privacy.

At the federal level, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, Children's Internet Protection Act, and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment give parents some degree of control over their kids' education records, which data companies or schools can collect about them, and what digital information schools can show them. Individual states have also adopted a patchwork of additional laws, some stronger than others.

But tech companies' report card on following those laws isn't perfect. Google paid $170 million last year to settle a lawsuit over allegations that YouTube collected kids' data without their parents' consent, and a 2017 study from the Electronic Frontier Foundation said "meaningful improvements in student data protection will require changes in state and federal law, in school and district priorities, and in edtech company policies and practices."

"We really need to fix FERPA," Kiesecker said. "It's a 40-year-old law and it needs to be updated. And it needs to be strengthened so that the onus isn't on the school district to try to vet and read word for word all these contracts that legal teams for these big edtech companies have put together and each school is on their own."

She added: "Teachers and schools need to have data to be able to assess where the students are and if they're learning, but when you have edtech companies with algorithms that we cannot see the efficacy of, that haven't been vetted … there's a problem."