Interview by Tara Kosowski
Christina Lewellen is executive director of the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools.
Net Assets: We’ve heard a lot about privacy challenges in the rush to go virtual this past spring, as faculty used new apps and resources that companies were offering for free. Can you break those down a little?
Lewellen: I think there were generally two camps pre-pandemic: There were schools that had a locked-down vetting process for requested apps or software, and there were schools where the process was a bit of a free for all. What we at ATLIS have found is that the pandemic put a lot of pressure on whatever system a school might have had in place, regardless of what camp it fell in. In some cases, even schools with advanced vetting processes in place found those processes went out the window at the start of the pandemic, because schools were trying to transition to remote schooling in a matter of days.
Free software can cause problems. The most publicized example is Zoom’s “free” features to schools. Even after the FBI warning came out and Zoom promised to fix features, there were still some question marks about whether or not that applied to those free versions that most educators were using.
This article is an online companion piece to the September/October 2020 Net Assets magazine cover story, "The Lives of Others: Protecting Student Data Privacy."
There’s also the issue of what happened with the student data in that period. Any number of quick and easy solutions — even something as simple as an online probability spinner that students would use to play a game of chance — those types of apps and solutions come at a cost because the companies may be mining and storing the data, or because they can cause integration issues with other school platforms. And if you're not reading the fine print, then it's very difficult to regain control of that student information. Once that horse is out of the barn, it’s tricky to wrangle it back in.
The good news is, this particular privacy issue was on the radar of tech leaders very early on, so our tech leaders have, from the early days of the pandemic, been meeting together, sharing best practices and resources with each other.
Net Assets: How can schools invest in the apps and resources they need to advance educational offerings while managing the budget?
Lewellen: Free is obviously ideal when working within a tight budget, but make sure that it goes through a vetting process and meets the standards that you set for student privacy. To do that, it’s important to have tech leaders, business officers and educators working together to make sure that cyber security and data protection are prioritized across school decisions. This is hard for a technology leader to solve on their own, just as it’s difficult for a business officer to wrap their head around this topic on their own.
Also, keep in mind that protecting student privacy is part of your school’s value proposition. If schools are not already having a conversation about how technology is advancing their missions, I believe this pandemic has taught us that now is the time to do that. Families expect that the school will keep their children’s information safe, and it's going to take more than one department to get a good handle on that. A disciplined and proactive approach to data privacy can help independent schools set themselves apart and move into the future. But it needs to be a multi-person solution.
Net Assets: You mention families’ expectations. Have those expectations shifted in wake of the pandemic?
Lewellen: Our tech leaders are certainly hearing some concern from families about privacy. However, in general, most parents just want to know how to get their student access to the educational solutions and programming that their teachers are putting out there. The biggest issue we're seeing is that parents are expecting additional handholding from a help desk perspective and leaning heavily on tech teams. There has also been concern from families about screen time, starting in the early days of the pandemic, particularly for lower school students who were spending a lot of time in front of a screen. So, our tech leaders are helping manage those questions to ease parents’ minds.
Net Assets: How can schools support their technology leaders in the new school year?
For more on the role of technology in school programs and operations, see the ATLIS360: A Technology Self-Study Guide for Schools, which can be used to analyze school-wide initiatives, to conduct departmental strategic planning, to help manage transitions, or to assist in an accreditation review.
Lewellen: Bring technology leaders into the decision-making process. Tech leaders are a part of the broader school ecosystem and bring a lot more to the table than just troubleshooting technology challenges. Not only do they interface with teachers, students, and families every day and represent the pedagogical approach of the school, but they’ve also been peddling fast to keep up with all of the changing dynamics brought forth by the pandemic. It’s possible that either faculty or administrators might not have thought of bringing the technology team in when it was time to talk about drop off and pick up before the pandemic, but now see that the tech team has solutions in place or new ideas that impact both really small details and the larger strategic plan for reopening campus.
For example, one school was recently looking for a solution that would track the movement of student pods as they moved through different buildings on campus, with the goal of minimizing pod crossover. At first, fellow tech leaders suggested using QR codes, among other solutions that would require students to have a phone or iPad on them while they crossed campus. At the end of the day, the best crowd-sourced solution was to use clipboards with sign-in sheets; that was exactly what the school needed. So sometimes the lower tech solution might be the best solution, and tech leaders can offer that perspective as well.
Over the summer, many independent schools focused their reopening efforts on the operational readiness of the physical plant, such as making sure that the gym had wifi so students could use it as a socially distanced study space. “Faculty readiness, however, was a whole separate thing schools may not have considered,” explained Lewellen. That includes preparing faculty to set up a course in an LMS and training employees on basic proficiencies to ensure they’re comfortable using the school’s hardware and software. ATLIS recently released the Faculty Readiness Considerations for Campus Reopenings Checklist that offers considerations and recommendations for faculty and student technology training.
Net Assets: How might that business off-tech partnership lead to opportunities for innovation?
Lewellen: If there's a silver lining to any of this, it’s that our tech leaders are pedaling fast and working hard, but they're excited. Everybody’s tired and stressed, but we're starting to get to where the creativity and the solutions that are coming forward are really fundamentally shifting our independent school communities. If anything, tech leaders are experiencing a sense of, “Yes, we finally have the attention that we have wanted for years.” They’ve been waiting to help faculty and staff get to the next level of their tech abilities, with the goal of leveraging technology for a robust educational experience.
Before the pandemic, tech leaders often couldn’t get the attention of certain faculty members who didn’t have a strong interest in changing their methods or approaches. Now, conversations that may never have happened are happening every day, and those relationships will only continue to grow as we move through these challenges.
Net Assets: What’s on the horizon for independent school business and tech leaders?
Lewellen: Over the past several months, business officers and tech leaders have been scrambling to rewrite their privacy policies to reflect the decisions they made during the pandemic and get closer to compliance. Right now, it feels very tactical, e.g., if schools are going to let students use their web cams from home or if they’ll require students to wear a uniform. The conversations are not yet strategic. Eventually, we expect the conversations will shift to how technology can amplify the school’s mission or considering which changes to the relationship between tech and teaching required by the virtual environment might be worth keeping post-pandemic. Once everyone has a moment to breathe, our schools will have to hone those best practices and make note of which changes are worth adopting on a more permanent basis. #Pandemic#Technology#Leadership
The Lives of Others: Protecting Student Data Privacy (Sept/Oct 2020)
Risk & Compliance: Data Safety During a Pandemic (Sept/Oct 2020)
Down to the Wire: Tech and Capital Projects (May/June 2020)
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