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Privacy & Data

CDT Tech Tales: Cooperation and Community Engagement at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

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 in some cases 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.

“Our goal is to get every kid connected – we have short-term solutions and long-term solutions, and of course our goal is to solve this problem for good.”

Ed Snow, Assistant Technology Director and Annette Smith, Director of Instructional Technology Services at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WI DPI) are proud of the way districts across the state have evolved this year when it comes to student data privacy. 

“One thing that has changed is the awareness school districts have. A year ago, we’d be shouting from the rooftops about data privacy,” he told CDT.  “Now school districts are looking very closely at their contracts and platforms to make sure student privacy is protected.”

When virtual learning began last spring, many Wisconsin districts implemented data privacy practices, if they had not done so already. As soon as district and state leaders understood the fall semester would begin in the virtual setting, they took a series of steps to proactively protect student data privacy and advance digital equity in more advanced ways than during the spring. 

DPI created a new Assistant Director role focused on data and cybersecurity, and Snow was hired to fill this position in summer 2020. “We created this new position because we wanted to get more information to schools and the community around these issues,” said Smith. “This is just one example of the work we’re doing to put cyber and data security front and center.”  

Part of putting technology and privacy first was using data to determine how to best help their students access virtual learning while modeling best practices in how that data is used. After conducting a survey on connectivity, WI DPI learned of communities that needed access to the internet due to a variety of reasons. They shared this data with providers to increase connectivity, but only after entering data sharing agreements with these providers that protected the privacy of the data while also using it to support students.

To serve their students and work towards closing the digital divide, DPI created a “digital learning bridge,” a program where schools buy broadband service for neighborhoods directly, increasing access for those who need it most. The community also created a broadband map, which highlighted local organizations that expanded their Wi-Fi into the parking lot for drive-up use.

The state listened to schools when prioritizing areas in which to negotiate statewide contracts and prices, including for internet access. It also established data-sharing agreements with districts and internet service providers to protect student data and ensure data is only used to help close the digital divide.

“Our goal is to get every kid connected – we have short-term solutions and long-term solutions, and of course our goal is to solve this problem for good,” Smith told CDT. 

Teachers have also played an important role in advocating for students and finding new ways to educate them through technology. In the spring, many parents complained about the number of applications their students had to use each day, adding to the chaos of the abrupt transition to virtual instruction. Teachers listened and voiced their concerns as well, and the state began working with districts to encourage consistency in applications, as well as providing access to the Student Data Privacy Consortium.

“Teachers know the importance of these issues, and they are really taking the time to vet out the terms of service,” said Snow. “Everyone is just trying really hard during this learn-from-home time.”

Much of the progress that is being made across Wisconsin was the result of educators, parents, and policymakers coming together as a community to ensure protecting student privacy was at the forefront of the transition to virtual learning. 

In order to provide education leaders and policymakers with guidance towards making equitable decisions about student privacy, CDT recently released a report titled “Protecting Students’ Privacy and Advancing Digital Equity.”  Based on original research, the report recommends prioritizing privacy-focused teacher training and proactively communicating with parents about how schools are protecting their children’s data. 

Read additional stories in this student privacy series here.