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Equity in Civic Technology, Privacy & Data

Has the Return to In-Person Teaching Resolved School Technology Issues? Not Exactly.

This past summer, school districts eagerly prepared to reopen physical campuses, pivot away from widespread use of remote or hybrid models of learning, and adapt existing technology platforms to suit this revitalized educational context. Now midway through the fall semester, the reality of reopened classrooms is looking slightly different than many education leaders imagined during the summer. 

Education technology and student data continue to play a key role in delivering instruction, as they have since the pandemic’s outset, but the disconnect between summertime expectations and the Covid-driven realities of the fall is creating difficulties for reacting to new challenges and deploying technology effectively. Below, we explore how the landscape of school data and technology use is changing and what that means for students’ privacy protection, digital equity, and online safety.

A Complicated Picture of Technology and School Reopening

At the beginning of the semester, schools reopened their doors and students returned to classrooms en masse, but educators were quickly confronted with the hard reality that the pandemic is not over. A surge of Covid-19 cases prompted classes and even entire schools to cancel in-person classes and once again switch to remote replacements while quarantining. While it looks like the peak of this wave of cases may be beginning to subside, occasional Covid flare-ups will inevitably necessitate schools’ periodic use of remote learning strategies, at least until all school-aged children are able to be vaccinated at sufficiently high rates. Even beyond Covid-19 outbreaks, extreme weather events — hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, etc. — have been forcing schools to close for days at a time.

None of this was a surprise. What was a surprise was how many schools were unprepared for these contingencies. In the face of Covid outbreaks or other closures, schools often reported sending students home with only asynchronous coursework bundles, and some even reported an inability to provide students with school-issued devices despite having access to them on campus. In many cases, the relatively robust hybrid learning infrastructure developed during the 2020-2021 school year was no longer in place, leaving teachers to once again scramble to pull together learning content when external factors prevented them from teaching in person. 

Given that the past year has given schools unprecedented experience with online learning, and that the ongoing pandemic continues to clearly demonstrate the continuing need for these kinds of technologies, why are schools now facing these gaps in their ability to deliver education content? Part of this is due to misplaced optimism and lack of planning foresight during districts’ planning this past summer, when Covid-19 case rates looked much more encouraging than in early September. Hybrid options were largely shuttered in favor of fully in-person learning for most students, with a smaller number of full-time virtual options for students who preferred them, often in entirely separate programs from the rest of the school population.

These planning shortcomings also indicate a disconnect between higher-level administrators and teachers themselves, who, based on forthcoming research, signalled support for continued use of online learning technologies into the fall. Finally, state-level restrictions mandating in-person instruction have also been cited as creating ambiguous legal constraints around providing hybrid instruction. 

Implications for Responsible Technology Use

In light of this educational landscape, how can education leaders ensure they are using data and technology thoughtfully and effectively? Established principles of responsible data and technology use still hold true, and a few aspects are particularly salient in the current context. 

Our previous guidance discusses the importance of proactively establishing technology and data governance plans. In the current context, technology plans are key to anticipating interruptions such as Covid-19 outbreaks and communicating roles and expectations to school staff for how to navigate them — schools whose technology plans do not have robust strategies for dealing with interruptions should act now to flesh those strategies out. The approach of colder months may continue to bring Covid-related challenges to schools, in addition to weather interruptions like snow days, and proactive technology plans as well as clear communication can minimize the disruption to students’ educational progress and reduce the risk of privacy incidents when quickly pivoting teaching strategies.

One aspect of proactive data governance includes making decisions about which tools will continue to be used during this era of the pandemic, and which will be retired. These decisions should incorporate community outreach by soliciting input from teachers, parents, and students about what technology practices they hope to continue, and which are no longer useful. Services that will no longer be used should be responsibly decommissioned, as discussed in previous guidance. Since technology needs and use cases for this phase of the pandemic have shifted from those of the past year, schools should ensure teachers are provided with training and support to help them utilize technological tools effectively in the current context while protecting student privacy and security.

Recent learning disruptions also demonstrate that the digital divide has not been fully closed, and many students still critically depend on school-issued devices to meet their learning needs. Last year, schools invested time and financial resources to expand device and internet access to their students; this year, schools should ensure students can continue to leverage these investments, both in classrooms during regular instruction and during periods of unexpected remote learning. Part of this preparation includes updating devices with the latest software to maximize cybersecurity protection, rigorously destroying any prior data when assigning existing devices to new students, and minimizing the use of invasive tools that can jeopardize students’ privacy. In addition, schools should plan for how to provide students with devices even when they cannot join physical classrooms, to help keep students connected to learning opportunities.

Schools have reopened, and the majority of students are once again learning in person, but the impacts of the ongoing pandemic continue to be felt. Proactive planning, deliberate technology decisions, and thoughtful approaches to device management can help ensure that school technology and data is used in a way that promotes student wellbeing and protects them online.