February 25, 2014

Schools, The Cloud and Privacy: Where Do We Go From Here?


Hostway Team

collegegirlIt's no surprise that American public schools are facing tightened budgets; every community is currently crunching their numbers, trying to squeeze as much as they can into a shrinking budget. So cloud computing – with its plethora of learning and administrative applications and cost-effective nature – is a perfect fit for schools, which spend an estimated $7.9 billion on educational software, according to the Software & Information Industry Association.

A new study from the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University Law School indicates that 95 percent of school districts rely on cloud services for a diverse range of functions, including data mining related to student performance, support for classroom activities, student guidance, data hosting, and special services like cafeteria payment plans and transportation scheduling.

But are schools educated enough about the cloud to ensure the privacy of students? According to the Fordham study, many school districts might not fully grasp the implications of outsourcing data handling, or they don't have enough negotiating power to insist on contracts that restrict the use of their information. Much of the issue lies not with technology and IT, but rather with contracts; while technology is growing by leaps and bounds, contract language doesn't adequately reflect these rapid changes.  Consider these statistics from the Fordham study:

  • Only 25 percent of districts inform parents of their use of cloud services;
  • 20 percent  of districts do not have policies that govern the use of online services;
  • Less than 25 percent of the agreements specify the purpose for disclosures of student information;
  • Less than seven percent of the contracts restrict the sale or marketing of student information by vendors, and many agreements allow vendors to change the terms.

So what can school districts do to better protect the privacy of their students and achieve compliance with child-protection mandates like COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act), while still being able to take advantage of flexible, cost-effective cloud-based technologies? Working with a trusted managed hosting provider, schools can make great strides by following these three recommendations when approaching the privacy of their students:

  • Provide parents with sufficient notice of the transfer of student information to cloud-service providers, and assure that parental consent is sought when required by federal law;
  • Improve contracts with managed hosting providers and private vendors to remove ambiguity from contracts and require specific information from providers on the disclosure and marketing of student data;
  • Set clearer policies on data governance within the school district, including the establishment of guidelines and rules that prohibit employees from using cloud services not approved by districts.

The cloud is a cost-effective and efficient way for schools to utilize the latest technologies and applications. With clear privacy policies in place, districts can also guard the privacy of their students and truly have the best of both worlds.

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