Data Privacy in a Pandemic? Parents Are Concerned, But Still Welcome More Tech

Parents are concerned about their children’s online safety and data privacy, but not as much as other issues such as the quality of education their child receives, protection from violence and bullying, and ensuring their child doesn’t fall behind in school.

That’s according to the approximately 1,200 parents surveyed by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) between mid-May and early June of this year. The nonprofit CDT therefore classifies student online and data privacy as a “mid- to low-level” concern for parents.

Still, parents further answered that they are equally responsible (52 percent) for their students’ data privacy as their child’s school administrators are. Yet many parents said they are not aware of the legal rights for protecting their child’s data privacy, nor of the technology plans in place in their child’s school or district.

“Parents see themselves as responsible for children’s privacy, even though they report feeling ill-equipped” to manage it, says Elizabeth Laird, senior fellow of student privacy for the Washington, D.C.-based CDT.

However, Laird notes, the legal framework in education does not allow for any control or input from parents. Schools are the ones legally responsible for protecting student data.

The more parents learn about student data privacy, the more concerned they become, the survey found. And parents of elementary school-aged children, African-American parents, Hispanic parents and those with higher incomes report higher overall concern for this issue than other parents.

The survey is the first in a series from the CDT about perceptions of student data privacy. Forthcoming reports will share results from focus groups with parents, focus groups with students, and a poll of teachers.

Beyond student data privacy, the May survey of parents asked them about their general perceptions of technology-aided learning.

“What we were surprised by is how tech-positive parents were, in terms of being proponents of technology, especially in light of the pandemic,” Laird says. “The pandemic hasn’t resulted in parents not supporting the use of online learning in the future.”

Going forward, 76 percent of parents said they would support increased use of online learning at home, and 74 percent said they would be comfortable with more online learning in their child’s classroom.

Parents “overwhelmingly” said that technology plays a role in delivering key educational benefits, according to the report. The top five named are:

  • clear and timely communication (94 percent);
  • learning continuity during disasters, such as the pandemic (93 percent);
  • use of visualizations to support learning concepts (93 percent);
  • individualized instruction based on a child’s needs (92 percent); and
  • self-paced or self-directed learning (91 percent).

The most common ways that students and teachers had interacted with each other in the two weeks prior to parents filling out the poll, according to the results, were through an online portal (48 percent), group video conferencing (47 percent) and email (47 percent).

Though much has changed about education since March, the privacy component is not new for schools. FERPA has been around since 1974, Laird points out, so schools have been protecting student data for “literally decades.”

“In schools that had [technology] tools they were already using, that transition has probably not changed much” since the pandemic, she says. “I think where there have been increased privacy risks is with new tools not designed for education purposes. In the rush to transition to online learning, in the midst of a global crisis, in some cases privacy was not top of mind.”

The CDT encouraged schools that had hurried into technology adoptions last spring to use the summer as an opportunity to regroup and “remediate,” Laird says. “If they’d signed up for apps without a thorough review, take time to do that. Be thoughtful about what to use in the new school year.”

She adds that a lot of attention has been paid to video conferencing, since millions of students used Zoom for live video instruction last spring. But the security issues with video conferencing software “are not necessarily fatal flaws with the tools themselves, but how they’re being deployed and configured,” Laird says.

Some training and guidance on how to better make use of the tools available within those programs—such as requiring a password, changing settings for who to admit and limiting screen sharing—may be all it takes to bolster security on a platform like Zoom.

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