How to Get Your Class Online & Maintain Student Privacy

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    Hackers, phishing, pharming, spam, adware, spyware, worms, and viruses. With everything that can go wrong online, it’s a small miracle that the Internet is still such a popular resource. Schools are charged not only with educating students, but also with keeping them safe—and nowadays that means protecting them online. Some schools have very tight restrictions about online use, including firewalls that block nearly every potentially interesting website imaginable and content filters so sensitive that “a” and “the” have become bad words. The excessive policing around information accessible only online has many tech-friendly teachers frustrated—sure they understand the importance of protecting student information, but they feel stifled by seemingly inane rules about online use.

    Image via flickr by Yuri Samoilov

    Protecting student data online has been such an enormous area of concern that the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) enacted a Student Privacy Bill of Rights in March 2014. Programs that students use at school are specifically called out in the bill, which argues that “EdTech companies should collect only as much student data as they need to complete specified purposes.” The issue of online entities collecting too much information about students without clearly defining privacy policies or explaining the potential future use of the collected data become front page news in November 2014, when the New York Times called out ClassDojo and other apps.

    So what’s a teacher to do? If you plan lessons that involve students using online programs and apps, you’re likely to hit the campus firewall or possibly even risk compromising your students’ privacy. Yet, if you keep your lessons offline, you know you’re missing a huge opportunity to engage students by using technology in meaningful, real-world ways. Well, never fear, because we’ve got all of the answers you seek. Follow these steps to get your class online and using popular apps, without worrying about keeping student data private.

    5 Steps for Protecting Student Privacy

    Step 1: Set up email accounts: To keep student information private, you’re going to need to set them up with a random email account, so there will be no way to guess (and hack) email addresses based on student names. If your school and IT department are onboard with your project, have them set up as many new email addresses as you have students. If you have multiple classes and hundreds of students, you might want to start with just one class. Request that the email usernames be simple and sequential, for example mystudent1, mystudent2, mystudent3, and so on. If your school won’t create extra email addresses, check out this explanation by edublogs for creating multiple student accounts using one master Gmail account.

    Step 2: Get yourself organized: Managing 30 email addresses and passwords can be a nightmare if you don’t start out organized. Create a spreadsheet to track any information you and your students may need later on. Try starting with columns labeled Email Address, Password, and Assigned Student. As your students start creating profiles on websites, you should keep track of where they have accounts, as well as user names and passwords associated with each email address.

    Step 3: Establish rules: Your school probably has some sort of acceptable online use contract that students have to sign before being assigned an email address or being allowed to use the computer lab. Make copies of those signed contracts and go over them in minute detail with your class. Have students brainstorm why each rule is important. You’ll probably get a lot of personal stories about things they’ve seen on the Internet that they probably shouldn’t have seen, so censor the discussion as needed, but keep the discussion open about why different rules may apply to using the Internet at school versus using it at home.

    Passing out the acceptable use forms will remind students that they agreed to these terms and will make them aware of the consequences of violating the agreement. It will also let you see who doesn’t have a signed form, so you can get one before you start your online lessons. If your school doesn’t have such a contract, you can find examples of acceptable use policies online to draft your own. You should consider setting rules specific to social media, as well, such as students may only friend or follow other students and may not engage in communication with anyone outside of class without express teacher permission.

    Step 4: Have fun with personas: Once you’ve got accounts all set up, let students create online personas for the websites and apps you are going to use. Since the goal is to keep personal student data from making it online, let the students be as creative as they’d like. You might wind up with a student who takes on the persona of a hairdresser from Vegas, or one who decides to be a cat hoarder. Let students pick avatars for their profiles or design their own using DoppelMe. The creative personas will come in handy later when you assign them to answer questions on Facebook groups or Tweet the way their character would. You’ll be testing creative writing, inference, and 21st technology skills, all in one!

    Step 5: Log in: It would be great to say that, now that the hard work is done, you can easily head online with your students with no issues. However, it’s possible that you’ll still need to work on firewall issues with your school administrators. Some principals just don’t see the educational benefit to using Facebook and Twitter in school—so let’s give them a few ideas about how you’ll use popular social media sites with your students to enhance their educational experience.

    Fun Online Activities for the Classroom

    1. Twitter: Students can tweet using hashtags related to current event. As they do so, they’ll engage in conversations started by educational hashtags like #science and #geography. Get more great ideas for how to use Twitter in the classroom from our very own guide.
    1. Facebook: Students can engage in online Socratic Seminars on Facebook in closed groups with their classmates. They will write book review posts in the voice of their online personas. The possibilities for using this social media site with your students are endless! In fact, the Teachthought site compiled this list of 100 ways to use Facebook.
    1. Instagram: Students can take photos of plants around the school, researching and captioning their posted pictures with information about the plant. Students can then put together wordless stories using photos. Education World published this great article that includes 5 more ways to bring Instagram into your class.
    1. Tumblr: Students can comment on their classmates’ posts using their persona’s personality. They can then curate several posts about issues important to the school community and link their posts to the school website. Check out these 5 additional waysEdTechReview suggests using Tumblr in your class.

    In Short

    Protecting your student’s privacy online is a big deal. Students have the right to use the Internet for educational purposes without worrying that their personal information will be collected and sold to the highest bidder. As a teacher, you’ve been tasked with keeping your students safe, but you’ve also been tasked with keeping the learning experience relevant and engaging. With these tips in hand, you’ll be sure to do just that. Good luck!


    Originally posted by Amanda Ronan in