Navigating Privacy and Safety in Virtual Learning

with Anisha Reddy of the Future of Privacy Forum

In light of COVID-19, many school districts are planning to extend virtual learning into a new school year. But e-learning can pose data security risks. What are key privacy concerns and how can families manage risk?

Anisha Reddy, Policy Counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, outlines the privacy challenges of online learning and the resources available to ensure a safe virtual learning environment.

Posted on:

August 18, 2020

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, schools throughout the country shifted from in-person learning to virtual classrooms. And with the onset of the new school year, a virtual learning is likely to continue for many U.S. students. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers. "I'm Tetiana Anderson. Virtual education has posed serious privacy concerns, which are highlighted due to the pandemic. Anisha Reddy is Policy Counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, and she joins me now to talk about the privacy challenges of online learning. Anisha, thank you for being with us. Reddy: Thank you for having me, Tetiana.

Anderson: So, look, when the pandemic hit, virtual learning really sort of became a necessity. It was no longer a choice. Why did this sort of set off alarm bells within your organization? What were you all concerned about? Reddy: So, one of the main things that we were really worried about was that the whole entire rush of the pandemic and the rush to online learning would cause a lot of schools and a lot of teachers to adopt platforms that hadn't been vetted or hadn't been examined for protections for student privacy. There are specific laws that govern student privacy, and a lot of tools that are regularly used --educational tools that are regularly used in the classroom have been vetted and have been found to be in compliance with these student privacy laws or to help schools comply with these student privacy laws. So with the adoption of general audience platforms, platforms that are used in the workspace or platforms that are used by adult consumers, we were worried that the same protections wouldn't be provided for students.

Anderson: And what about the educators themselves? Where do they stand in their readiness to use a lot of these new technologies in the classroom that they're going to have to rely on at this point? And how is your organization helping them to raise their own education level when it comes to those things? Reddy: So, it varies across the country, and it's typically based on the resources that schools have to adopt new and innovative technologies to use in the classroom. But one of the things that we really are emphasizing is the importance of student privacy, specifically as schools move online entirely. And one of the things that we are doing is developing professional development for teachers. So if you go to our website,, we have a lot of resources for professional development for teachers, to help schools that may not have the resources to do extra training on top of everything that they're doing during the pandemic to provide for students.

Anderson: So, they're beefing up their skills. And I think a lot of people would think that online learning is a good thing. It's helpful in many ways. But the fact of the matter is the Internet can be sort of the Wild West, and bad things happen in there. What are some of the things you've seen happen when the information of students gets into the wrong hands? Reddy: So, for one, we all became familiar with issues where students would post links to their online classrooms on websites and prank classrooms and have people on the Internet, random people on the Internet, join in and send harassing messages and stuff like that and spam online classrooms. And that was something that teachers, schools, and even the platforms weren't prepared for just because it's a new test case. Learning online during the pandemic at this scale has never been done before. So that was one thing that we noticed. But even when schools were providing for students in person during times before the pandemic, we did see that, you know, hackers do target schools, because schools do have a lot of personal information about their students and about the parents. So there's one instance where hackers targeted rural schools, and what they took were phone numbers. And what they did was threaten the school that they would unleash another Sandy Hook on the school and things like that, which, as you can imagine, raised alarm bells and really scared the school and actually shut down schools for weeks. So no matter what, student privacy is important during regular times, but especially as students are learning entirely online.

Anderson: And to that point, there are even newer technologies that are coming out, that are already out there, that educators are talking about now as they implement online learning. What's the sort of buzz among the administrators and educators about what's going to be next and what they're going to be using? Reddy: So, we're seein ga lot of conversations about how schools can accurately assess participation and assess a student's attendance and things like that, especially because of the switch to online. It's harder for teachers to tell whether or not a student is paying attention. It's not like they can look at a student and see whether or not they're engaged because they're engaging online. So one of the things that we're actually worried about is the potential for over-monitoring and the potential for this monitoring to have punitive effects on students unfairly. So one thing that we're emphasizing is controlling and minimizing the data that you collect on students and really communicating with parents and students how they're going to be assessed in the next school year.

Anderson: You already hit on it earlier, but where do people go if they want to find out more information about what you guys are doing to keep schools safe, privacy safe, all your important work? Reddy: Sure. We have a website called And there, we have resources for parents, students, teachers, school administrators, basically any stakeholder in this conversation. And also, hosts all of our work in privacy and consumer privacy generally.

Anderson: Anisha Reddy with the Future of Privacy Forum. Thank you so much for being here. Reddy: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country, as always, be sure to join us at I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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