As a school librarian at a small K-12 district in Illinois, Angela K. is at the center of a battle of extremes in educational technology and student privacy.

On one side, her district is careful and privacy-conscious when it comes to technology, with key administrators who take extreme caution with ID numbers, logins, and any other potentially identifying information required to use online services. On the other side, the district has enough technology “cheerleaders” driving adoption forward that now students as young as second grade are using Google’s G Suite for Education.

In search of a middle ground that serves students, Angela is asking hard, fundamental questions. “We can use technology to do this, but should we? Is it giving us the same results as something non-technological?” Angela asked. “We need to see the big picture. How do we take advantage of these tools while keeping information private and being aware of what we might be giving away?”

School librarians are uniquely positioned to navigate this middle ground and advocate for privacy, both within the school library itself and in larger school- or district-wide conversations about technology. Often, school librarians are the only staff members trained as educators, privacy specialists, and technologists, bringing not only the skills but a professional mandate to lead their communities in digital privacy and intellectual freedom. On top of that, librarians have trusted relationships across the student privacy stakeholder chain, from working directly with students to training teachers to negotiating with technology vendors.

Following the money

Part of any school librarian’s job is making purchasing decisions with digital vendors for library catalogs, electronic databases, e-books, and more. That means that school librarians like Angela are trained to work with ed tech providers and think critically about their services.

“I am always asking, ‘Where is this company making their money?’” Angela said. “That’s often the key to what’s going on with the student information they collect.”

School librarians know the questions to ask a vendor. Angela listed some of the questions she tends to ask: What student data is the vendor collecting? How and when is it anonymized, if at all? What does the vendor do with student data? How long is it retained? Is authentication required to use a certain software or service, and, if so, how are students’ usernames and passwords generated?

In reality, though, librarians are not always involved in contract negotiations. “More and more tech tools are being adopted either top-down through admin, who don’t always think about privacy in a nuanced way, or directly through teachers, who approach it on a more pedagogical level,” Angela said. “We need people at the table who are trained to ask questions about student privacy. Right now, these questions often don’t get asked until a product is implemented—and at that point, it’s too late.”

Teaching privacy

Angela wants to see more direct education around privacy concepts and expectations, and not just for students. Teachers and other staff in her district would benefit from more thorough training, as well.

“As a librarian, I believe in the great things technology can offer,” she said, “but I think we need to do a better job educating students, teachers, and administrators on reasons for privacy.”

For students, Angela’s district provides the digital literacy education mandated by Illinois’s Internet Safety Act. However, compartmentalized curricula are not enough to transform the way students interact with technology; it has to be reinforced across subjects throughout the school year.

“We used to be able to reinforce it every time library staff worked with students throughout the year,” Angela said, “but now staff is too thin.”

Teachers also need training to understand the risks of the technology they are offering to students.

“For younger teachers, it’s hard to be simultaneously skeptical and enthusiastic about new educational technologies,” Angela said. “They are really alert to public records considerations and FERPA laws, but they also come out of education programs so heavily trained in using data to improve educational experiences.”

In the absence of more thorough professional training, Angela sees teachers and administrators overwhelmed with the task of considering privacy in their teaching. “Sometime educators default to not using any technology at all because they don’t have the time or resources to teach their kids about appropriate use. Or, teachers will use it all and not think about privacy,” she said. “When people don’t know about their options, there can be this desperate feeling that there’s nothing we can do to protect our privacy.”

Angela fears that, without better privacy education and awareness, students' intellectual freedom will suffer. “If students don’t expect privacy, if they accept that a company or a teacher or ‘big brother’ is always watching, then they won’t be creative anymore.”

A need for caution moving forward

Coming from librarianship’s tradition of facilitating the spread of information while also safeguarding users’ privacy and intellectual freedom, Angela is committed to adopting and applying ed tech while also preserving student privacy.

“I am cautious in a realistic way. After all, I’m a tools user. I know I need a library catalog, for example. I know I need electronic databases. Technologies are a necessary utility, not something we can walk away from.”

As ed tech use increases, school librarians like Angela have an opportunity to show that there is no need to compromise privacy for newer or more high-tech educational resources.

“Too many people in education have no expectation of privacy, or think it’s worth it to hand over our students’ personal information for ed tech services that are free. But we don’t have to give up privacy to get the resources we need to do good education.”

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