Student data privacy has been at the forefront of district leaders’ minds well before the pandemic. However, since COVID-19 shifted schools and classrooms online, it’s not surprising that tech usage has reached an all-time high. Districts are accessing 1,400 edtech tools per month on average, and cybersecurity attacks in our nation’s schools are also increasing.
As an Education Technology Specialist at one of Colorado’s fastest-growing districts, District 49, I was tasked 5 years ago with the responsibility to ensure our district complied with federal and student data privacy laws. Both state and federal laws require vendors and school districts to facilitate safe online learning experiences. However, when the pandemic hit, our district was forced to rethink our approach beyond compliance to further vet our edtech tools and make protecting student data privacy a regular practice of our edtech ecosystem.
For the process to work, I knew we would have to work collaboratively, across departments and buildings, to confirm that our teachers and students were using digital tools that delivered value without exposing student data to risk.
Our district serves 13,000 students across four distinct zones, spanning 133 square miles of suburban and rural areas. Our school leadership has the autonomy and authority to choose whether or not one-to-one learning makes sense for their students and teachers based on their specific student population. Once the pandemic hit, this autonomy became one of our biggest hurdles. Some schools could seamlessly pivot to online learning, while others scrambled to put together folders of materials every week. We quickly found ourselves overwhelmed by the variation in tools used across our district and inundated by options.
We knew we needed help to encourage consistent practices across school buildings, ensure compliance with Colorado’s student data privacy requirements, reduce frustration and confusion among stakeholders (including parents students, and staff), and begin to evaluate the impact of edtech on student outcomes. At the same time, we wanted to maintain local decision-making. For us, it was all about balance.
Districts like D49 can, and already are, doing this work. And like most things, while it may not be perfect, it’s getting better–that’s what the focus should be for all K-12 stakeholders.
Here are five best practices for other administrators and education leaders to consider when reigning in their districts’ edtech ecosystem:
1. Audit what is currently in use, not just what’s being purchased. To better understand our district’s edtech usage, our tech team set up a free Inventory Dashboard. Within days, we realized that students and teachers were using a lot more technology tools than we expected–2,000 edtech tools systemwide! Taking stock of the education technology tools being accessed in a district is an essential first step for identifying immediate opportunities for improvement, spotting and eliminating any redundancies, uncovering potential savings, and creating and prioritizing improvement plans aligned to systemwide goals.
2. Understand K-12 laws both at the federal and state levels. Selecting technology platforms and apps needs to address a district’s unique challenges and also comply with state and federal law. For example, in Colorado, the state law requires the ability to “request and evaluate remote learning technology,” while the U.S. Department of Education says “when possible.” District leaders should understand the laws and ensure vendors comply as mandated by their state when applicable, as it may differ from federal guidelines.
3. Work with partners to streamline edtech processes. Being able to sit down with principals and point to the effectiveness of technology choices they made last year, last month, or at the beginning of the school year is an essential part of streamlining the selection and procurement process. We partner with LearnPlatform to gather, comply, share, and communicate our district’s edtech evidence-building protocol to continuously improve teaching and learning.
4. Establish professional development to inform teachers and principals of new edtech policies and ask for their feedback. When districts engage in edtech evaluations and potential change, educators may need to change how they integrate technology in their classrooms. Getting that buy-in is critical and this requires clear communication and built-in feedback opportunities. Leaders should take a hands-on approach, reach out and request feedback at the start of the process. New edtech policies and expectations must be communicated on an ongoing basis. Teachers must also be supported with valuable professional development opportunities that illuminate best practices to enhance technology usage for both teachers and students to optimize learning.
5. Be transparent with parents and local communities. Change can be hard, especially for parents and caregivers who have struggled with the multitude of ever-changing technology platforms that their children have accessed throughout the pandemic. District leaders need to recognize and respect the vital role that families play in successfully educating children to safely navigate the digital tools necessary for quality education. Giving them a consistent place to see what edtech tools are being used with their students goes a long way.
Tech-enabled learning is here to stay. Districts are responsible for taking a hard look at their edtech offerings and must collaborate with solution providers that comply with the law and embrace evidence-building and sharing to support effective and equitable learning.