As More Schools Have Their Head in the Cloud, Privacy Concerns Persist

cloudclassroom2Not too long ago, Anne Smith, like most other teachers, used regular class periods to offer feedback and guidance  to her students on their classwork. After she began using Google Apps for Education (GAfE), things began to change. Soon, students were seeking feedback from her after school hours. Initially, Smith, a high school English teacher in Centennial, Colorado, was surprised to be receiving messages about schoolwork from her students, but she quickly appreciated what the technology made possible.

“It is amazing to me to see students collaborating at night with one another – revising, writing, asking questions and even inviting their teacher in on the process,” she said.

Every student in Smith’s class has access to a Chromebooks, which they use to write, edit and reflect using Google Apps, which eliminates the need for paper. They can add multimedia elements – videos, audio, images, etc. – to their papers Cloud-based computing – the process of storing data on a remote, Internet-based server, providing access from any device and location – is wildly popular in the private sector and has been steadily making inroads into public schools. GAfE, in particular, is becoming more prevalent in education, especially since Google sold over 1 million Chromebooks to schools earlier in 2014. What’s more, Google recently released a specific app called Google Classroom, which is its designed to help teachers better organize their classes.

Even as Smith and countless educators have found it an enormously valuable tool – a game changer even – some experts caution that the cloud computing comes with a quite a bit of baggage.

The fact that these programs are online makes them less secure than the standard paper and pencil teaching and schools transfer large quantities of student personal data including transcript information to third party providers. According to a 2014 study “School districts throughout the country are embracing the use of cloud computing services for important educational goals, but have not kept pace with appropriate safeguards for the personal data of school children,” Joel Reidenberg, founding director of CLIP, said in a statement. “We believe there are critical actions that school districts and vendors must take to address the serious deficiencies in privacy protection.”

Schools and educators are storing student data on these cloud companies’ websites, instead of placing the information into file cabinets. Some companies also offer quizzes and homework that collect data from students. According to SafeGov.org, Google admitted that it did data mine student emails for ad-targeting purposes outside of school.

In Greater Clark County Schools (GCCS) in Indiana, teachers save and share lesson plans on the learning management system My Big Campus, Additionally, the district posts grades and attendance to PowerSchool – and parents can log in to view the information.

According to its web site, “PowerSchool is agile, easily managing student records, schedules, attendance, transcripts and much more.” But there have been complaints about the tool’s consistency, which is used Charlotte Observer reported, PowerSchool was, among other pitfalls, producing inaccurate student transcripts across the state.

While school districts can work to protect data through district-wide systems, other privacy challenges emerge over the use of web applications available to teachers and students accessible via a handheld device, which the district may not have as much control over.

GCCS Director of Technology Brett Clark says schools and districts must work to minimize the hazards over privacy, but the benefits of cloud computing are too great to ignore.

“You do everything you can to protect the privacy of students, but you also have to do what’s best for your students,” explains Clark. “It’s the direction that not only education, but also where the business world is going.”

And it can save money, potentially at least. Littleton Public Schools in Colorado started using Google Apps  in 2010, issuing accounts to students in grades 4-12. LPS Chief Information Officer Mark Lindstone and Mike Porter, director of technology, cite savings from file servers to reduced labor to email licensing. Eliminating email licensing, for example, saves the districts thousands of dollars: LPS comprises 15,000 students and email licensing can cost between $2-$3 per person, according to Porter and Lindstone.  State education officials in Oregon, the first state to adopt Google Apps for Education in all of their public schools, claim the move will save $1.5 million annually.

The transition to cloud-based learning can be a slow process, though, said Brett Boyles, who teaches at an alternative high school in Littleton. More experienced teachers are less likely to embrace technological advances, and even some students had trouble with it, Boyles said.

“Sometimes we assume that the younger generation welcomes change with open arms and that is not always the case,” Boyles explains. “Sometimes comfort wins out over new and efficient.”

“But cloud computing makes sense, as do web-based applications,” he adds. “The very notion of purchasing software that has to be installed on machines is a 20th Century idea to me.”