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The Digital Classroom

We need to deal with data privacy in our classrooms

It’s time for us to band together as a sector and demand data privacy protections from our digital classroom tools.


It’s September. Ever since my kindergarten days, Septembers have brought a “back to the classroom” thrill. But this year, that thrill has a thrum of anxiety baked in.

It’s not just pandemic recovery. Sure, heading back to campus after two-and-a-half years teaching online has its stressors (where is my keycard, anyway?), but, even as an instructor of digital technologies, I’m loving the energy of being back in the classroom.

The anxiety is about the uncertainty around what we’ve invited in there with us.

Do you skip over reading the Terms of Service (TOS) on a digital platform? You’re not alone. Clicking “yes” without reading is a survival mechanism in a world bombarded with logins and cookies and TOS only lawyers can decipher.

But with every click and keystroke – even every deleted search – we give away data that can be used to track and pattern our behaviour. That data can be sold to brokers or used as fodder for artificial intelligence interfaces and surveillance. We pay for our contemporary digital infrastructure with our privacy: the structure of digital capitalism has trained us to treat that as the price of modern life. At a personal level, I live with this uneasy daily trade-off.

As a teacher, though, the trade-off doesn’t feel like mine to accept. I teach pre-service teachers about digital tools they can use in their own classrooms. Every platform I expose them to is one that I implicitly sign off on as safe, not just for my students but for the legions of students they’ll encounter in the course of their careers.

The truth is, in the rapidly changing educational technology landscape, I can’t promise data safety. Over the pandemic, digital education became a hot industry to get in on: tools proliferated, as did usage. The extractive nature of datafied tools can make student searches and browsing habits visible to corporate providers. Student data can end up in the hands of law enforcement or life insurance companies. There’s a non-negligible risk that a student could face real-life consequences for inadvertently exposing private information while simply engaging in my class.

Digital surveillance in the guise of classroom tools also poses a risk. Online proctoring platforms create privatized surveillance networks, collecting not just keystroke data but video of students and the inside of their homes. Proctoring tools can be so rigid that students cannot even look away from the screen during an exam. And automated surveillance tools can reinforce all kinds of societal biases. During the pandemic, some racialized students had trouble accessing online exams because proctoring tools failed to register their faces, due to skin colour. These risks are not ethically acceptable to me.

But should we all just close our laptops and run away?

I don’t think so. I’ve spent nearly 20 years of my career focused on the participatory possibilities of digital and networked tools for education. They can amplify access and even connection in my classes. Institutions and school boards have long used educational technologies to organize student work and communications. During the pandemic, many schools used Zoom and other platforms to hold live classes. Teachers also chose from an array of tools that serve specific classroom purposes: from quick quizzes and games through discussions, digital whiteboard work, or creation of posters, videos, infographics. These have value in a 21st-century educational context.

However, there is no current way for educators to keep up with the data implications of all the classroom tools available.

In the early days of the pandemic, I was curious about what my fellow educators really knew about the tools we increasingly relied on. I designed a summer 2020 survey of the data knowledge and practices of university teachers from around the world: it got more than 300 responses, from 26 countries. All participants were teaching online at the time.

Turns out educators don’t read the TOS, even for tools that aren’t institutionally procured. We don’t know a lot about where the data from our courses goes. We do, however, want our institutions to make ethical decisions about student data – that point came through strongly in the survey and in the follow-up qualitative study I’ve engaged in this past year – but we do not have clear professional paths towards understanding data privacy and data risk.

University classrooms are one of the few places in society that citizens could expect to learn to think critically and competently about data privacy. And academic shared governance is fundamentally premised on faculty being knowledgeable about the contexts and infrastructures of our institutions. Except when it comes to data, we just – generally – aren’t.

I’d be a lot less anxious this September, then, if data privacy and risk issues were a clear priority for institutions. Educators need supported paths to understanding what we’re bringing into our learning spaces. Data is the currency of the tools we enhance our classrooms with. Yet no individual educator can assure safe usage: there are simply too many tools and too many TOS that aren’t meant to be read, or that don’t address educational or ethical concerns.

As a sector, we don’t have to cede our educational infrastructures to corporate entities and data brokers. We could use our collective voices and procurement power – on postsecondary campuses and in K-12 – to demand that educational technology platforms post clear, plain language, and pedagogically-focused data privacy assurances. As institutions and individuals, we could refuse tools that don’t comply. We could protect our students from extraction and surveillance, while educating them – and ourselves – about privacy in this brave new world.

This would take a culture shift. Like everyone else living through the last decade, educators have become acculturated to a “click yes and ignore” approach to data.

But if we want to protect the thrill of back to school for Septembers to come, it’s time for us to band together and demand data privacy protections for digital classroom tools, so that we can offer our students safe and state-of-the-art educations, all at once.

Bonnie Stewart is an associate professor of Online Pedagogy and Workplace Learning in the faculty of education at the University of Windsor.
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