June 23, 2022

Article at edCircuit Magazine

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It’s time for a different mindset on digital security and privacy in edtech

Our children’s immersion in education technology isn’t going to slow down, which means technology-related privacy and security can’t either. We’re never going to reach a point where we put our pencils down and say, “We’re all safe and secure now, so we don’t need to worry anymore.”

In the very near term of privacy and security regarding education technology, however, where we currently invest our time and energy may not be with the places and issues that will truly help. It’s time for a different mindset and by that, I’m suggesting that education technology entrepreneurs, developers and investors step up their focus on privacy and security, rather than place the burden on educators. Let me explain.

Right now, most education technology products and resources zero in on the balance between building an easy, open, accessible and collaborative tool with the other end of the spectrum, building an impenetrable fortress. I’m not suggesting that we reduce our emphasis on privacy and security, rather that we recognize that when the bell rings and students move off our platforms, they are on their own. Despite our best efforts to teach digital citizenship, or how powerful or revolutionary our technology is, when a student leaves the classroom, learning platform or school device, there is very little safety net protecting them.

Students spend a significant amount of time outside of formal learning ecosystems engaging with outside content and with each other, creating and sharing data. Furthermore, they interact with people and data outside of learning platforms far more often than they do within our learning platforms. We know all too well that these socially minded platforms and systems are not nearly as secure as those created for school use.

There’s nothing we can do about that. We can’t be responsible for the time students spend outside of our reach, however, that answer is not good enough. If we care about educating and protecting students – as all of us educators and education technologists do – it’s not good enough to make sure our heat is working and yet send students out into the cold without a coat.

I’m of the view that educating about digital security is just as vital as digital security itself. As an industry, we need to educate just as much as we develop. In other words, we need systems and experiences that teach while teaching.

Here is an example. It may be better for educational technology architects to not just delete the online footprints of students when they exit a remote learning platform, but instead tell students what is happening and why, right at that moment.

Imagine, for example, a pop-up informing students every time an edtech product deletes their data, anonymizes their profile, or verifies a security setting. Not only would we feel better about our products when seeing this in real time, but students may also notice that their video games and chat platforms don’t issue the same alerts – one simple step with significant potential to educate and improve accountability. Students will quickly begin to recognize the difference between the secure services their schools use and those that might expose their data, and consequently, better understand the significance of overt and stated actions to protect their data.

Going further, wherever possible, online security and privacy examples can be integrated into the curriculum. It is possible, for example, to teach English or math concepts using best practices of digital diligence and citizenship – teaching self-awareness and a critical eye.

For our part as technology providers, we play a significant role in educating students about the responsible use of technology. Doing so organically, at the moment of engagement is powerful grounding for essential digital citizenship education.

In Finland, which has one of the most well-respected educational systems in the world, teaching online and social media citizenship starts in kindergarten and it is infused in the curriculum all the way through secondary school. Technology safety and security are a top priority and they actively teach about it, equipping their students with specific skills in protecting their personal data.

Teaching digital citizenship will be more successful if we approach this from both sides: the teachable moment when engaged with technology and the overt teaching of technology safety and privacy. For the edtech industry, product effectiveness should not only be defined by how well we protect, but also by how well we facilitate in students learning how to protect themselves.

Al Kingsley is Group CEO of NetSupport, an author, business leader, a school governor, and co-chair of Workstream 4 at the Foundation for Educational Development, whose mandate is to develop a framework for long-term vision and sustainable planning in England. Al travels the world, speaking about and studying education.


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