Innovation from Within: How Savvy Districts Are Making Data Privacy Work
The Huffington Post

Original post from The Huffington Post

By: Joel D. Boyd

Over the last three years, hundreds of bills designed to protect the privacy and security of student data have been introduced across state legislatures. At least 60 have become law. State legislation aims – in part – to clarify federal laws drafted at a time when the latest technology included a DOS-run version of The Oregon Trail. But in the decades since, high-speed internet has accelerated access to content for teachers and students. Mobile computing has enabled an explosion of teacher-focused apps and tools and, in some cases, begun to disintermediate district-level decision-making. Educators now collaborate beyond their school or district via social media and share teacher-generated content with thousands of peers at the click of a button. Legislative shifts reflect the best efforts of policymakers to keep pace with innovation – and yet the gap between education technology policy and practice grows.

As new laws trigger state and district policies to be drafted almost more quickly than they can be read, the potential for misunderstanding and misinterpretation abounds. There is risk that the shifting sands of compliance could stymie beneficial uses of innovative tools at a time when our most vulnerable students deserve the best modern technology has to offer. District and school leaders, stuck in the middle, have to balance compliance concerns with leveraging technology to address their most vexing challenges. A handful of districts are getting it right. Some were focused on data privacy before data privacy was cool. The following three tips represent perspectives from peers in district leadership, including Ventura County, one of the most thoughtful districts in the field.

Build a shared understanding of safety.

Begin with a vision of a world in which students have access to a wealth of knowledge and ideas, to diverse and stimulating learning environments, and to personalized learning playlists that capture their imaginations and take them places that were barely conceivable without today’s technologies. Then raise the challenge of making these experiences possible while also protecting students from accidental disclosure, inappropriate content, or bad actors. Work collaboratively with everyone influenced by new policies to understand what may or may not work in implementation. Finally, work together to articulate a plan that maximizes the likelihood of success and mitigates the risks of failure.

Ventura County, for example, built relationships, trust, and credibility with their stakeholders, including staff, students, and community members, which was critical in helping achieve the vision of creating a healthy digital environment for students and staff. These were essential ingredients to a sustainable coalition that could develop long-term solutions.

Tap into technology to accomplish the most challenging parts of the work.

The more information available from students and families, teachers and leaders, and community stakeholders, the more and better they can be supported. Technology tools can be used to facilitate the work of building that shared understanding of safety described above. They can also be used to capture concerns and disseminate information about planned implementation activities.

Ventura worked with its partners to deploy a module to help schools, the district, and service agencies quickly analyze their current digital safety efforts, processes, and procedures, and create actionable plans for improvement. The tool takes stakeholders through a survey that helps them reflect on and assess current efforts, identify strengths and weaknesses, and determine areas in need of support. It also helps promote an iterative process for schools, districts, and service agencies to track their progress and identify where they’re excelling and where they need to make improvements in implementing the data privacy policy.

Anticipate evolving technologies and student needs.

Continuous innovation is one of the most exciting aspects of our digital economy. It is also one of the most challenging to manage for school districts. A torrent of new technologies means that policies and protocols designed to protect safety and privacy must mirror the innovation cycle. Community leaders, district personnel, teachers, families, and students change over time. Their needs evolve. Their goals shift. Simply engaging stakeholders once is insufficient. Regular, explicit attention to the opportunities and challenges of new technologies is required to maintain an ideal relationship between safety and privacy and student learning. Savvy districts are designing systems and workflows in order to engage stakeholders on an ongoing basis, gather insights and opinions, and educate key constituencies about the incredible new opportunities available for learning—and for protecting themselves.

Information about students and the ways they learn best is deeply personal. Yet the opportunities to harness that information to transform their learning environments into engaging, exciting places are boundless. With thoughtful processes in place to translate data into learning outcomes and mitigate the associated risks, schools and families can realize a future unbounded by today’s limitations. Technology need not be a danger. Instead, it can serve as a bridge between protecting students’ privacy and safety and expanding their opportunity.