Classroom Technology

As Teachers Livestream Classes, Privacy Issues Arise

By Sarah Schwartz — August 20, 2020 8 min read
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Along with the clear plastic dividers, hand sanitizing stations, and six-feet-apart floor markings in schools this fall, some teachers will have to make room for another new piece of classroom equipment: a camera.

Many districts are planning for hybrid approaches to school scheduling, and in some cases that means teachers will be simultaneously instructing students who are in the brick-and-mortar classroom and students who are home, via live stream.

The design, in theory, is simple: Students at home log into a videoconferencing platform at the start of class. Everyone, whether in class or remote, can listen to the same lesson, ask questions, and receive feedback on independent work. Kids who are doing distance learning can see their classmates and feel like they’re part of the same community.

But some teachers whose schools are planning for this model in the fall worry about the privacy implications of broadcasting a classroom. Every heated class debate, teacher mistake, and student outburst is on display and might be recorded.

See Also: School Reopenings Bring Wave of COVID-19 Student-Data-Privacy Concerns

Schools need to consider if and how they’ll store videos that capture kids’ voices and faces, said Linnette Attai, a student data privacy compliance consultant.

“The critical piece for schools and districts is to really refresh the fundamentals of privacy,” she said. “Don’t just try something new because it’s new. Think really carefully.”

And there are still basic practical questions that teachers say remain unanswered: How will they split their attention between two groups of kids? When you’re giving directions, do you look at the computer camera or the students in class?

“Maybe half my students won’t be with me, and I have to somehow bring them in,” said Laura, a teacher at a private school in Arizona, who asked that her name be changed for this article.

“Not only am I creating my class via the learning management system, so that everyone has access to all the materials, but I have to engage [students at home] in learning at the same time as I’m managing my classroom. I think that’s going to be a huge learning curve for teachers,” she said.

Protecting Privacy

A few of the privacy concerns that come with this model are the same challenges that districts faced in all-remote synchronous classes this past spring, experts say. Schools can’t forget lessons learned from that experience, said Attai.

They should take steps to secure access to the virtual classroom, so that only students can get inside, and set community norms and rules around not taking screenshots or recording the session on a separate device, she said.

Emory Roane, the policy counsel at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, said schools might also want to think twice before requiring remote students to join with video. “If students are required to have their camera on, that’s going to force some students to reveal personal information that they might not feel comfortable sharing,” he said. Other students can see details about a kid’s family life, what their house looks like, or how many other people are living there.

But there are also new concerns, specific to streaming an in-person class. For instance: Do parents need to give explicit consent for students who are in the school building to appear on camera? Attai suggests that families be given an opt-out option.

Laura, the Arizona teacher, said her students’ parents have signed off on them appearing on a stream. Even so, she worries that the feed could catch kids in moments they might not want broadcast. “A student who is falling asleep at their desk won’t want [that] on public video,” she said.

Some teachers are also wary about having their movements constantly recorded.

In California, several teachers’ unions are pushing back on district livestreaming policies, citing a section of the state’s education code that requires a teacher’s consent to capture video or audio in the classroom. But nationally, there are few protections for teachers when it comes to surveillance, said Roane.

“Unfortunately, teachers are kind of left out in the cold like most employees in the country,” he said.

Cheryl Manning, a science teacher at Evergreen High School in Colorado, said she worries that this model could lead to schools micromanaging teachers’ instruction.

“Teaching itself is a feminized career. It’s a career that’s been done historically by women … and most administrators are men,” said Manning, whose school is planning to have teachers livestream lessons. “Because of that, there is a complete and utter lack of trust in our professionalism.”

“I think that we’re putting Big Brother in the classroom,” Manning continued. “And Big Brother’s never going to leave.”

It’s possible that districts may want to keep using the monitoring and streaming tools that they introduced during these months, even after the pandemic ends, Roane said. “We just want to be careful that as we are barreling into this online-only or hybrid classroom that we’re carefully considering the technologies we’re bringing with us,” he said.

FERPA Considerations

If public schools record these livestreams and keep the video files, they will also have to consider the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects student privacy. Under the law, any records—including video recordings—that are directly related to an individual student generally can’t be shared without parental permission.

What counts as “directly related” to the student? The term doesn’t come with a specific definition, said Roane. The U.S. Department of Education says that it could include, but isn’t limited to, grades, transcripts, class lists, student course schedules, health records, and student discipline files.

It’s possible that certain circumstances that could arise in a recorded class would qualify: for instance, if a student is filmed misbehaving and the video becomes part of a suspension record.

In a March webinar, the department’s Student Privacy Policy Office said that schools should consider how they plan to secure video files from virtual learning that count as student records.

Still, a student’s face merely appearing in a video doesn’t necessarily mean that video would be considered part of his education record—what counts as “directly related” is decided on a case by case basis, said Roane.

Schools that want to livestream classrooms will need to provide professional learning around FERPA that goes beyond explaining what the law requires to demonstrate its practical application in this model, said Attai. “It has to be, ‘Here’s how you have to be thinking about protecting privacy in your classroom given what you’re planning to be doing this year,’” she said.

Still ‘Huge Question Marks’

Outside of privacy concerns, how feasible teachers find this model depends, in large part, on their—and their students’—access to technology and training.

Middle school teacher Jodi West said her private school, Akiva Academy in Youngstown, Ohio, will be providing Chromebooks and hotspots for students and earpieces and lapel mics for teachers. All students will do their work on the computer, regardless of environment, to keep instruction coherent. For the remote students, “it’s like they’re still in the classroom,” she said. “You don’t want to isolate them so that they feel worse about not being there.”

West still has a few unanswered questions—like how to angle her camera in class so that remote students get a good view—but overall, she has a good sense of what her teaching will look like in a remote synchronous environment. She’s confident she can do it well.

Beth Jensen, a 7th and 8th grade ELA teacher at Everest Middle School in northeast Kansas, is less sure that a synchronous, hybrid model could work for her students.

Students will be expected to follow the day’s synchronous schedule on their own, making sure that they’re tuning into classes at the right time throughout the day. She anticipates technical difficulties. “I already know that one of [my remote students] lives way out in the country, without reliable internet connection, so I’m not sure how that’s going to work out,” she said.

Jack Viere, a resource teacher at Immaculata Catholic High School in Durham, N.C., said there’s still a “huge question mark” about how he and his colleagues will deliver push-in special education services for students who are videoconferencing into live classes from home. How will they interact with individual students on screen, without impeding their or their classmates’ access to the in-person lesson?

Research on hybrid, synchronous learning is still limited. But the studies that do exist suggest that this model requires a specific set of conditions to work well.

A 2019 review paper from researchers in Belgium looked at 47 studies of classes where some students participated in person, and others joined via livestream. They found that teaching in this way was a lot more complicated than turning on the camera and conducting a lesson as usual—it required “radical shifts” in pedagogy and technical support. Teacher training is important, they wrote.

And while having remote students join live can help build social connections and keep instruction coherent across environments, the review found that there are drawbacks to the model to consider, too: Technology glitches can easily frustrate students and derail lessons, and having to constantly monitor two groups at once is stressful for teachers.

Almost all of the studies in the review were of college-age students or other adult learners. How K-12 students might fare in a hybrid synchronous model is less clear, said Betty Chandy, the director for online learning at Catalyst @ Penn GSE, a center for educational innovation at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

If a teacher’s attention is divided, students livestreaming from home may have to be more self-directed—a skill that would be reasonable to expect from college students but maybe not from middle or high schoolers, Chandy said.

‘There’s this assumption that younger generations are going to be more tech savvy intrinsically, somehow,” said Viere. School leaders might think that students can manage a hybrid set-up on their own because they’re comfortable using apps and smartphones—but “that’s a huge assumption there,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as As Teachers Livestream Classes, Privacy Issues Arise


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