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PRIORITIES FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION

A Brief to the Ministry of Education from the BC Teachers’ Federation, August 2017 

Technology: Privacy Concerns

The issue

The use of digital technology is exploding, bringing with it increasing concerns about privacy issues. At the classroom and teacher level, several types of tools raise privacy issues:

  • student information systems (particularly MyEducation BC)
  • learning management systems (like Moodle)
  • apps for specific purposes (eportfolios like FreshGrade; many other apps for specific, sometimes educational purposes)
  • communication and productivity tools (like email, Word, Google Docs).

Background

In BC we have a specific law that requires that personal information on individuals be stored on servers in Canada. The law requiring this was passed because of the Patriot Act in the US. that provided government access to data on individuals held on servers in the US. It is possible for individuals in BC to waive this requirement, but with informed consent.

The tool used by the largest number of teachers is MyEducation BC. The Ministry has promoted its use to provide a standard way of carrying out the reporting on student assessments and attendance. It has been adopted for this use by most school districts. It has a number of features beyond reporting, including holding individual education plans for students with special needs and, in some cases, access to student information by the parents of the student.

One might expect that privacy would be an essential element of a widely used tool that contains information on almost every student in the province. However, a survey of members by the BCTF indicated that only 28% had privacy training, and only half of those found the training adequate. This means about 85% of users are not adequately prepared for this responsibility.

Another major area of concern relates to apps. Hundreds of these are being created annually. Some have wide user-bases in BC schools, such as the eportfolio app, FreshGrade. Others are used by teachers because they fit a particular educational purpose. The programs collect data on individuals—data is actually the way that many “free” apps are financed.

Two of the major IT corporations are attempting to make their services the platform for education use.  Google has been in the lead, with Microsoft entering this competition as well. They combine several of the types of tools into one platform, hoping they will be the “go-to” base for classroom use. Google’s Suite, for example, includes productivity tools with apps and with a learning management system—students must have a gmail address to use it. It operates on an open resources approach, so that the development work by teachers and students can be easily shared. What is shared then becomes another reason to use that platform. Microsoft is following the same map, and offering lots of apps and tools as part of their education package.

All of these digital tools collect personal data on students. They require privacy assessments and training of teachers and students in privacy issues. It is unreasonable to expect that individual teachers will have the time to research all the potential tools that might be educationally useful. 

Key recommendations

Recommendation 1

Privacy should be a focus of Ministry of Education and school districts in ensuring that teachers are adequately trained to use MyEducation BC.

Recommendation 2

The Ministry of Education and the Information and Privacy Commissioner should develop a guidebook for parents, teachers, and administrators on privacy policies and practices related to digital technology.

Recommendation 3

The Ministry of Education should finance a database of privacy information related to specific digital tools so that a teacher considering using a tool or app has information about the related privacy issues and appropriate information in plain language for parents and students to choose if they will provide waivers to use the tool.

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