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Equity in Civic Technology, Privacy & Data

CDT Tech Tales: Centering Student Well-Being in School Technology Decisions

This post is part of CDT’s storytelling series on EdTech use and student privacy protection during COVID-19. Our experts have spoken with parents, teachers, district leaders, and state officials about how they’ve managed the transition to virtual learning and the return of in-person instruction, leveraging data and technology and protecting the civil rights of students along the way. Check out the rest of the stories here.

As the burgeoning education technology (edtech) industry has expanded over the past few years, fueled by COVID-related distance learning demands, educators have more options than ever for incorporating new technology into their teaching. Any new edtech tool requires an investment from the school—integration into existing systems, training time for teachers and students, vetting and security considerations, and sometimes outright monetary costs. Faced with this abundance of choice, how should teachers and school staff evaluate which tools are actually worth adopting and integrating into their education plans?

In our last Tech Tales post, we explored the work being done at Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a high school in Philadelphia, PA, to teach digital literacy principles to its students. Here, we continue our conversation with Anna Walker-Roberts, SLA classroom instructor and Technology Leader and Digital Learning Coordinator, to highlight important practices around technology-related decision-making at schools like SLA.

SLA, like every other school during the past year, has faced questions of how to adopt new technology to respond to COVID-19. 

“One of the big questions we ask when we’re considering any new tech is whether this is good for students,” Walker-Roberts notes. “If it is, then we’ll possibly consider it; if it’s only good for teachers or admin, that might not be a great reason to adopt it.” 

Included in this student-centered approach is engaging with families to hear how students have been responding to the new school structure, both academically and emotionally. Parents provide a helpful sounding board for weighing changes and ensuring that technology-driven learning programs are meeting the needs of students they serve.

SLA’s rollout of new edtech during the past year was deliberate and methodically staggered to give students time to learn the new tools. This approach required some patience from teachers, but ultimately ensured that both students and teachers were trained and well-equipped to use each new technology put in place. SLA devotes two hours a week to professional development and training, which has been dominated by technology guidance during the past year and had a consistent technology emphasis well before that. 

This training around edtech use and privacy considerations sets SLA apart from the majority of schools in the U.S. According to CDT’s recent survey research, 37 percent of teachers still report receiving no substantive training on privacy policies and procedures, and 77 percent have not received training on reducing risks of videoconferencing, a key tool during pandemic-era instruction. Teacher training helps ensure that edtech is used responsibly, and will continue to play a vital role in privacy protection as the pandemic’s impact on schools enters its next phase.

One aspect of student privacy protection the pandemic brought to the forefront is ensuring necessary privacy for special education supports, including handling digital documents and hosting Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings online. SLA’s special ed team worked with families to design policies to protect the privacy of these functions while conducting them virtually, such as requesting cameras-on for IEP meetings to ensure participants are aware of who is listening to the conversation. 

Tailoring online learning to the needs of special ed students goes beyond exercises in privacy protection, and here again Walker-Roberts points to the importance of establishing strong family relationships to ensure that learning plans are serving students well. In addition, SLA provides a study hall course for students with IEPs, where they can join virtual breakout rooms with their special ed teacher to receive close support.

As Walker-Roberts and other SLA staff honed their approach to serving special ed students effectively during COVID-19, they have sought to extend the lessons learned to the broader student population. One such lesson is the value of regular one-on-one check-ins with students to hear how they are doing and ensure they are receiving the support they need. 

“We try to avoid kids falling through the cracks by just not having cracks,” Walker-Roberts remarks. “However much we can possibly be talking with kids directly and learning about their experiences, the better we can pivot and respond not to hypothetical needs, but the actual needs of students.”

School learning environments and teaching formats are changing again with the return to in-person learning. As educators face new questions about how to adapt technology practices accordingly, the same principle applies just as much now as last year: student well-being is paramount.