Nyla, a seventh-grade student, chooses e-books during class to hide from peers her favorite series, The Notebook of Doom, which is well below her current grade level. Lincoln, a high school junior grappling with his sexual identity, bypasses the school library reference desk to search the online catalog for e-books with gay protagonists. Mr. Dicken, a first-year elementary teacher, hesitates when prompted to provide family email addresses to a digital reading platform promising free access to popular picture books.
Nyla, Lincoln, and Mr. Dicken illustrate that digital materials can provide desired privacy in some scenarios while creating problems in others. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, English language arts (ELA) teachers have increasingly relied on digital materials and online tools to expand student access to books and content, facilitate online collaboration, and deliver learning experiences. Here we provide five recommendations for teachers committed to protecting student and family privacy.
Honor e-books in addition to print materials
E-books became a solution for getting books in the hands of readers who faced pandemic restrictions. Scholastic shared in their 2020 Teacher & Principal School Report that the shift to distance and hybrid learning doubled teachers’ desire for e-books from 15% to 31%. E-books, in addition to providing instant access, often have accessibility features that support emerging and striving readers. For example, students can enlarge and mark up text, enable text-to-speech, and modify the display contrast.
A frequently overlooked advantage of e-books is that readers can download and enjoy titles without judgment from peers. Consider students like Nyla wanting to conceal their reading level. The placement of reading levels on book spines, a debatable practice, is nonexistent with e-books. The American Association of School Librarians cites the protection of student privacy in their position statement against the labeling of print materials with reading levels. For students like Lincoln, curious about sensitive topics such as gender identity, e-books afford the luxury of reading without peers viewing book covers or making assumptions about the reader. Teaching how to locate and access e-book options can help match students with books that meet their instructional needs and personal interests.
Avoid providing family email addresses to third-party apps
ELA teachers in school districts without a managed e-book collection may lean heavily on what are marketed as free digital libraries. Libraries, such as Epic and Vooks, provide free accounts for teachers and student access to popular e-books during school hours; however, the tradeoff is the reliance on paid home subscriptions to sustain their business model. Equity-minded teachers can establish transparency by explaining how these digital platforms operate and assuring families they will not supply home email addresses to third-party apps or services. These companies may advertise to families who then may feel pressure to sign up through email solicitation. While some free digital libraries will remain classroom favorites, we recommend inquiring with your school and public library to seek additional options for digital reading platforms.
Slow down on the social media celebrations
Social media can be a powerful vehicle for teachers looking to grow their personal and professional learning networks. Protocols become ambiguous, however, when teachers leverage social media to connect with families and share classroom celebrations. For example, it was common for teachers to enthusiastically post screenshots of virtual meetings throughout the pandemic. These online images often included boxes of student faces labeled with first and last names, a violation of student privacy under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Common Sense Education reminds teachers to be mindful of how social media posts can commercialize a classroom. They explain that while social media can be a great way to offer feedback to developers of educational products, teachers may want to think twice about featuring students in posts that promote specific products or services. We recommend that teachers continue to celebrate learning via social media but pause before posting photos that match student names with faces.
Teach students healthy online habits
Students, too, can take steps toward protecting their privacy in the ELA classroom. Teachers may consider modeling for students how to wipe the browser history on a shared device, how to privately search the internet through an incognito window, or how to install browser extensions that block online activity trackers. These small habits don’t take long to demonstrate and have the potential to stick with learners long after they leave the classroom. Teachers looking for expanded lesson plans on maintaining privacy online can search Common Sense Education, Learning for Justice, and code.org.
Consult district curriculum leaders when trying new tools
Edtech industry efforts to provide free trials of digital tools throughout the pandemic have left many wondering what schools, teachers, and families gave in exchange. The answer may be data. Free digital libraries mentioned above should not be singled out for their targeted marketing. Common Sense Education found inconsistent privacy practices across the industry as part of their 2019 State of Edtech Privacy Report. Some district curriculum leaders are now examining privacy policies when evaluating whether educational apps and resources are useful for meeting instructional goals. Checking for certifications such as the Student Privacy Pledge and iKeepSafe can be one strategy for verifying a company’s commitment to protecting student privacy.
As pandemic restrictions ease in the classroom, we hope teachers will continue to incorporate their favorite digital tools for collaboration and instruction. Teachers and librarians shouldn’t abandon technology to avoid student privacy issues. Future-focused ELA teachers will recognize there are two sides to the privacy coin. Some of these tools will provide new opportunities for protecting student privacy while others will create new vulnerabilities. It is a shared responsibility to implement safeguards to keep student data private.
Kristin M. Patrick is a past president of the Indiana State Literacy Association and a technology integration coach with Noblesville Schools.
Tara L. Kingsley is an associate professor of education at Indiana University Kokomo.