5 ways to create a safer digital environment at your school

2 experts share their top strategies for operating in the information age.

digital-environmentsIn “Securing the Connected Classroom: Technology Planning to Keep Students Safe,authors Abbie H. Brown, Ph.D., and Tim D. Green, Ph.D., outline a process that education leaders can follow to develop a secure environment for learning with technology. According to Brown and Green, “the book guides educators, administrators, and IT staff through a step-by-step process for creating a district-wide blueprint for keeping students safe while maintaining an appropriate level of security.”

Brown, a professor in the instructional technology program at East Carolina University, and Green, a professor of educational technology and a teacher educator at California State University, Fullerton, both worked in the K-12 environment before moving into higher education. Here, the two authors share tips that school technology administrators can use to make their own jobs easier while supporting their institutions with solid, safe IT practices:

School staff is working toward a common goal, but from differing viewpoints. “When it comes to technology usage and student safety, everyone working with a school comes at the issue from a different angle,” says Brown, who explains that there are administrators, teachers, students, parents, and other constituents to consider when developing good technology usage policies. And while everyone generally has the same common goal of keeping students safe, “everyone also has a different perspective on how that will work—or, what actually poses a threat.”

Next page: Staying on the right side of FERPA

Understand the link between classroom technology and federal policies. In some cases, individual teachers don’t understand the link between the applications they’re using in the classroom and the various laws meant to keep student data secure. Using ClassDojo as an example, Brown says the application’s ability to collect data about student progress within a database that’s not controlled by the school is a violation of both the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). “As far as we know it’ a benign problem because ClassDojo isn’t intending to do anything with that data,” Brown says. “The software system was just set up to collect the data, and in doing so it’s violating some serious federal policies.” This issue can multiply in environments where budgets are tight and some of the most accessible teaching tools are free apps. “This calls into question exactly how much [freedom] to extend to teachers in making their own decisions about the apps and software that they’re using,” Brown adds.

Vet out applications and tools in a “safe” setting first. One way IT administrators can help teachers stay compliant with FERPA, COPA, and even the E-Rate funding rule (the latter of which requires schools to have internet safety policies in place), is by vetting out the tools, applications, and software before handing it over to teachers for classroom use. “I’ve seen a lot of teachers get excited about a particular tool,” says Green, “and then jump right in without reading the user agreement and without talking to other people about their experiences using the technology.” Encourage teachers to talk to your department about that latest, greatest, new application that they read about online, Green advises, and always test out the tool in a safe setting before letting it loose in the classroom. “Try it out for a week and see what happens,” says Green. “If you’re instantly bombarded with advertising, or if the end-user agreement mentions the collection of data, then you could run into problems with it.”

Read through software end user agreements. This single step helps ensure that teachers and students are working within the confines of FERPA, COPA, and the various state and local laws governing technology usage in schools. “Read thoroughly into what the product is all about in legal terms,” advises Brown. “Most online software that’s ethical will have a policy statement.” According to Brown, a few years ago Disney was selling software that inadvertently collected data. “They then took it upon themselves to craft a policy statement noting that the data that is collected is not kept and that they’re committed to protecting the students’ privacy,” says Brown. When reviewing end user agreements, Brown says one of the key points to consider is whether the company has a public policy in place that addresses the maintenance of children’s privacy.

Take a collaborative approach to student safety in the information age. When working with IT administrators, teachers, and parents, Brown and Green like to get everyone together in a room to discuss the problem. They favor the classroom setting for these interactions, and say getting everyone “on one side of the whiteboard” helps the group feel more cohesive. “That sets the tone that we’re all in this together and trying to solve the problem,” says Brown, “versus just having people sitting at a table across from one another.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.

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