The hidden face of online classes with children: they can know if their parents have had a fight or if their dog has just died

Educational platforms provide large companies with access to other types of information that can be much more sensitive

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed a problem that has been regularly debated in the educational environment, among parents and in the media: are the digital platforms that schools and institutes use more and more safe? Are they respectful of the privacy of minors? Although recurrent, this issue had not taken the dimension that it has at this time. Currently, several million students spend hours a day connected to these platforms . They allow them to access the content prepared by their teachers, attend classes remotely, communicate with them to answer questions, submit activities and assignments, and even be evaluated.

In some countries, most autonomous communities have reached agreements with Google or Microsoft to use their digital platforms in the classroom in recent academic years. They are Google for Education and Office 365. This last platform is somewhat more widespread since most centers have Windows operating systems installed on their computers and deployment is more natural and simple.

These agreements have been renewed, extended or even created from scratch if necessary when face-to-face classes were suspended in March due to the COVID-19 crisis. These products do not provide large direct benefits to large technology companies, since they usually offer them for free or for a price well below what they really have. What do they gain then?

  • First, they fulfill their corporate responsibility obligations by dedicating hours and resources to social purposes.
  • Secondly, they establish preferential relationships with public administrations or large private companies with a presence in the education sector, which may provide them with lucrative contracts in the future.
  • Third, they get publicity and recognition among those who will be their future users (students). Students get used to using your interfaces, they start to recognize your brand, etc.

The value of data

There is a benefit that is never clearly talked about: the data that they can obtain on these students. Some are obvious: name and surname, age and course, family relationships within the same center, zip code. But educational platforms provide access to other types of information that can be much more sensitive.

It is possible to know at what time the students connect to study, from what device and location . You can also access the contents of their work and, therefore, read their writing about what they did last weekend , find out if their parents have had a fight or if their pet has just died .

On the other hand, many of these platforms are being used so that students can communicate with each other during confinement. This allows drawing social graphs that collect who communicates with whom and in what way or in what tone. You can also know the cadence with which a student types, with which hand she uses the mouse and if she makes spelling mistakes. Or whether or not she pays attention and where she directs her eyes during a class given by a teacher.

But what is all this information for? The objective is to create very detailed profiles of millions of minors who at some point will no longer be minors. Thanks to these data, it is possible to know the socioeconomic level of a student, their cultural or academic level and their family situation. But also if he is dyslexic, if he has learning or attention problems, if he is a bully or if, on the contrary, he suffers some kind of harassment.

All this information can be very useful to offer personalized advertising or when deciding on a future contract. We do not know in whose hands it may end up. To begin with, in those of Google and Microsoft. But also in those of the United States government, since it is the country in which these companies have their headquarters. Both deny using or commercializing the data. But even if that were true right now, what about 5 years from now, 10 years, 15 years from now? What will happen then with all that data?

Is parental consent enough?

The consent that most centers have collected from parents is not enough to use these platforms carelessly. For various reasons, mainly:

  • Because in most cases it is not an informed consent. Many parents do not know what data of their children can be collected or inferred through these platforms, nor the use that can be given to them (nor, therefore, the impact that all this data may have on their children in the future). are in the hands of third parties).
  • Because also in most cases, it is not a consent provided from the freedom of choice . If a parent or guardian decides not to give her consent, what feasible alternatives are offered? Wouldn’t you be limiting your son or daughter’s access to education?

Other alternatives: own platforms

Some autonomous communities have tried in recent years to develop their own tools with uneven scope, investment and success in their projects. The main objective is not to depend on large foreign multinationals to have a digital platform that supports work in the classroom or remotely.

Almost all of these initiatives are based on logical and very reasonable principles. The almost ideal solution should meet the following precepts:

  • Solve the needs that teachers have detected in their centers and in the educational context of the country.
  • Be open source and allow audits without limitations.
  • Use systems that belong to the public administration.
  • Guarantee adequate levels of security and privacy for minors.

In this sense, the project of the Valencian Community is usually given as an example. It is one of the most recognized at a European level and has several tools (although some of its centers still use the platforms of large multinationals). But there is still a long way to go. Most solutions of this type cannot be compared to those provided by Google or Microsoft. They do not offer all their functionalities, nor do they scale adequately for a large number of students, nor do they guarantee the same levels of availability, nor are they equally usable and intuitive.

In addition, in many cases the code of this type of project is not open (it is owned by a company subcontracted by the administration) nor does it run on its own servers (but rather on servers in the cloud that almost always belong to North American multinationals and are located outside of our borders). So they end up raising the same suspicions as the solutions already mentioned.

Measures to guarantee privacy

This area of ​​our lives is not the only one in which the often false dilemma of functionality versus privacy arises. We do not have to give up quality digital or distance education if we are concerned about the privacy of our minors. Nor is this privacy the price we must pay for using powerful, accessible and easy-to-use platforms.

In an emergency situation such as the current one, it does not seem advisable to start new projects or establish outright prohibitions. It is logical to resort to platforms such as Google or Microsoft, which can be used 100% from the first minute. However, some measures and practices can be implemented to increase your level of privacy:

  • As has been done in other countries, the central administration could negotiate from a position of strength the use of point-to-point encryption or the location on European soil of the servers where the data is stored. A minimum level of data protection should be required before allowing these platforms to be used in the centers in a massive way.
  • It should be periodically audited that what has been signed is fulfilled and the agreements reviewed accordingly.
  • It is essential to provide, also from the administration, good practices and guides for the configuration and use of these platforms to the centers, parents and minors. Unfortunately, the default configuration is usually not the most respectful of the student’s privacy (something that is not a coincidence, obviously). Modifying certain options and practices can improve the protection of the most sensitive data.
  • It is desirable that these issues are openly discussed with parents so that consent is truly informed.

When all this happens, in the medium or long term, we will have to consider whether this option is valid for our educational system or whether it is worth developing one or more of our own digital education platforms. Using sufficient resources and truly relying on the experience of the educational community and the specific needs for each level. Other questions arise here: Do we have the capacity to do it? And to do it right?

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