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Cybersecurity & Standards, Privacy & Data

Protecting Students in Virtual Classrooms: Considerations for Educators

As government leaders, policymakers, and technology companies continue to navigate the global coronavirus pandemic, CDT is actively monitoring the latest responses and working to ensure they are grounded in civil rights and liberties. Our policy teams aim to help leaders craft solutions that balance the unique needs of the moment, while still respecting and upholding individual human rights. Find more of our work at cdt.org/coronavirus.

In the midst of a global pandemic, educators and parents are making a valiant effort to keep educating kids as best they can without stepping foot in a classroom. One tool that presents an opportunity to continue some form of classroom-style engagement is videoconferencing. This post will offer guidance to educators to help use videoconferencing in a safe way.

* An important caveat to this post is that the guidance largely assumes that both students and teachers are able to join a videoconference. That isn’t true for all classes, as internet access is nowhere near universal. The novel coronavirus outbreak is bringing that disparity into sharp relief, but it was there before and will be there after, and policymakers must address it. *

Videoconferencing can enable teachers to interact with their students face-to-face and hold synchronous classes, as well as continuing other forms of support like connecting kids to caring adults and providing counseling services. While these connections are valuable in these unstable times, videoconferencing introduces its own set of risks. Moving classes online heightens the need to consider what student data is being collected, stored, and secured. Other concerns feel newer, such as “Zoom-bombing,” where an uninvited participant interrupts a meeting. These interruptions can range from obnoxious to very disturbing, such as attackers shouting racial slurs and profanities or exposing themselves.

Although all of these concerns may feel overwhelming, many of them are new versions of issues schools and teachers deal with in the off-line world as well. Protecting student data has been an important component of education for decades, and schools regularly take measure to ensure that their students are safe on campus.

In the ideal situation, a school will be able to leverage an existing vendor agreement, providing teachers with vetted software and a data sharing agreement. Whether or not they have existing agreements, districts and charter management organizations should be providing their teachers with protocols, manuals, and training for safely managing videoconferencing. If this guidance hasn’t been provided, educators should reach out to their districts or schools to see what they can provide and request guidance and support.

Another important part of protecting students’ data and protecting them from harm is configuring and using the chosen system effectively and defensively. Most platforms will have settings available for managing video calls, and these play a key role in the security of the videoconference. Settings will vary from across platforms, and some platforms are releasing best practices for educators using their systems (such as Zoom and Webex). That said, some general best practices will span platforms:

  • Setting a password for the meeting keeps out unwanted participants. This prevents unwanted recording or other exfiltrating of student information, and protects students from being exposed to malicious intrusions like Zoom-bombing. For platforms that don’t allow passwords, make sure the link to the meeting is long and hard to guess.
  • Additionally, many platforms let the host restrict certain functionality from other users, like screensharing or recording, or managing participants, such as by muting all participants. This gives the host more control and can reduce some security concerns (such as Zoom-bombing incidents where the attackers yelled racial epithets).
  • Treat streaming and recorded videos that have any student interaction as personally identifiable information and thus subject to federal and state laws.

In addition to the privacy and safety of students, another factor to consider is functionality. There are several websites to help compare different platforms. (The Wikipedia comparison page is not for the faint of heart!) Many of the videoconferencing services were not designed with an educational audience in mind, so it is important to conduct due diligence before selecting a product and ensure that it complies with student privacy legal standards and best practices.

Some considerations to weigh might include:

  • How much does it cost? For many schools and educators, videoconferencing is a surprise cost, and therefore they may not have a lot of budget to work with. Many of the major platforms have free or low-cost tiers that will offer basic functionality, but may restrict other features like session recording. There may also be costs to students as well who have concerns about bandwidth at home. Join-by-phone options can provide these students with some level of access (possibly in concert with non-videoconference alternatives). Even if a product is free, it must still comply with existing state and federal student privacy laws.
  • What operating systems does the platform work on? Depending on the use case, it may be important to select an option that allows for users on a broad range of platforms to join, so that, where possible, students aren’t excluded based on what devices they have available to them. Similarly, options that allow students to join by phone may open the session to still more students, though they may not be able to see a shared screen.
  • How many participants can join a given session? Most platforms have an upper limit on how many people can join a given call (and often paid tiers allow more users to join).
  • How long can sessions last? Some platforms restrict the length of a given session or the total time a given person can use in a certain period. Typically, the paid versions remove these restrictions.
  • Do you need specific accessibility features? The suitability of different platforms will vary depending on what capability is required, and some solutions might introduce privacy concerns. For instance, auto-generating transcripts, which could be helpful for hearing impaired students, generally requires creating a recording of the class to send to the transcription engine or service. Because of the complexity and potential increased privacy concerns, this is a good place to engage your IT privacy professionals, your legal counsel, and your specific student population program teams (such as students with disabilities) if possible.

Shifting to distance learning is a big change for many educators that is introducing a whole host of concerns and questions to address. This post presented some of the ways that educators can secure their new virtual classrooms while continuing to engage with students. If you have other questions you’d like answered about distance learning, let us know!