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Equity in Civic Technology, Privacy & Data

CDT Tech Tales: Teaching Digital Literacy at Science Leadership Academy

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.

How many social media services do you interact with on a daily basis? Two? Three? 

When Anna Walker-Roberts posed this question to her class of high school students, she was surprised by many of the answers: between eight and twelve. The responses demonstrate the complexity of students’ digital lives, and the importance of equipping them to flourish in online spaces.

In a year when COVID-19 has pushed schools to rely more heavily on edtech and data to provide instruction, students have turned to virtual platforms to mediate their recreation, socialization, and more recently, education. Privacy, security, and digital equity, longstanding elements of healthy online interactions, have become key areas of attention for schools as they support their students online.

Walker-Roberts teaches at Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia, PA, where she serves as Technology Teacher Leader and Digital Learning Coordinator in addition to her responsibilities as a classroom instructor. These roles drive her to think critically about how students interact with technology inside and outside of school, and how educators can facilitate thoughtful technology practices. Students themselves are the most important stakeholders in privacy protection and online safety, and SLA’s technology philosophy recognizes students’ developing autonomy in digital spaces.

We first heard about SLA’s student-first approach to using technology and protecting student privacy during COVID-19 when we spoke to its principal, Chris Lehmann, for CDT’s Tech Tales series last fall. Lehmann and his team prioritize student privacy and equity concerns, particularly in the shift to virtual learning, so that technology can help students rather than hinder them.

Our recent conversation with Walker-Roberts illustrates how this privacy-forward framework extends to curriculum design and teaching practices. She references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when considering students’ privacy and security during COVID-19: “The first thing we need to do is make sure our kids are safe—in a building, online, wherever they are learning. Once we make sure students are safe and secure, then we learn.”

 “Part of being a student at our school,” Walker-Roberts notes, “is learning about how to manage your own privacy and security of information.” 

These curriculum emphases, which have been in place since well before COVID-19, have helped students and teachers at SLA respond nimbly to pandemic-era disruptions and are preparing them for a smooth transition back to in-person learning.

To train students to practice thoughtful online habits, SLA enrolls all freshmen in “Tech Class,” a foundational digital literacy course covering topics like basic internet mechanics, password protection, cyberbullying, and forming an online identity. SLA’s curriculum builds on the baseline principles of Tech Class through ongoing conversations within its advisory system: students join a cohort led by an advisor who will stay with them all four years of high school. Advisory cohorts provide space to discuss concepts of privacy, security, and digital identity in a nuanced, personal setting. 

In Tech Class, advisory cohorts, and other discussions of online life, SLA seeks to present a nuanced position that avoids extremes of privacy naivete or blanket technical withdrawal. This philosophy involves introducing students to the concept of a “digital footprint”—the collective body of data that a person generates through interactions on the internet. 

“We want our students to be putting themselves out there and having an online identity,” Walker-Roberts comments. “We believe that’s an important part of being a digital citizen today, but we want students to be thoughtful and intentional about what they put forward as their digital personality.” 

Training students to be digitally literate is key to providing them with safe, productive experiences online. It empowers them to make thoughtful decisions about their own data and equips them for future success participating in online behavior as adults. Digital literacy has taken on even more importance during the pandemic, as students engage in online activity with more autonomy, often using school-provided devices—introducing cybersecurity considerations for protecting schools’ digital security perimeters. Moreover, as more students come online through ongoing efforts to close the digital divide, they may be less experienced with navigating online spaces safely, and thus in greater need of digital literacy training.

Despite this urgency, the technology practices led by Walker-Roberts and other staff at SLA are still far too uncommon among schools in the U.S. According to CDT’s recent research, only 66 percent of teachers report familiarity with their school’s student data privacy policies and procedures, and only 33 percent discussed data privacy with students as a requirement or part of the curriculum. Our latest report provides actionable guidance on how educators and practitioners can foster privacy-forward practices at their institutions. Data and technology will continue to play a key role in students’ lives during the next phase of the pandemic, and schools should act now to equip them for success.