How to Protect Your Family's Privacy During Remote Learning

Building a safe digital environment is essential to making remote learning work, experts say.
Sep 25, 2020 12:20 PM ET

Millions of students will attend school online this fall because of the coronavirus, either by choice or not.

Understandably, parents have a lot of questions: How will they access their child’s learning materials? Do they have enough devices? How is the school distributing tablets and laptops? Will there be a new grading policy?

But two questions somewhat absent from the conversation are how remote learning affects privacy, and what are the steps that parents, students and teachers can take to build an online environment that feels like a safe space.

“I think one of the biggest problems we have is trying to replicate or mirror traditional classroom practices in the virtual realm,” said Torrey Trust, Ph.D., an associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. That’s especially true during the pandemic, she added, when there are a lot of students who have experienced trauma and are now being forced into a remote learning environment.

In search of guidance, I spoke with seven experts who specialize in online education, privacy and safety. Here is what they recommend to ensure that children are protected.

Talk to your children about what privacy means to them

“It’s important for parents to have conversations with their children about what feels private to them and what doesn’t,” said Jen Cort, an educational consultant and clinical social worker in Montgomery County, Maryland. That’s not a one-time conversation, she added.

Everyone has a general understanding of what privacy is: a lack of intrusion into one’s private life. But not everybody considers the same things to be an intrusion, and people’s definition of privacy can change depending upon where they are and whom they are interacting with, in person or online.

Parents play an important role in validating their children’s worries about privacy, and can help their kids practice speaking up about their concerns. 

Amelia Vance, the director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that provides resources to help people better understand how new technologies affect privacy, said students should be instructed to tell their teachers or parents if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe in the online learning environment. 

Take time to discuss any anxieties your children might have about online privacy: Are they worried that the teacher may record their class and, if so, are they concerned about how securely that recording will be stored and for how long? Are they anxious about being seen on camera or whether a video platform is safe? Are they scared that other students might take snapshots of the class or that their classmates will judge their home?

Students who appear on video may also fear that their teachers will judge their appearance. That’s why teachers should check in privately with their students to make sure that they are interpreting their students’ facial expressions and body language correctly, Cort advised. A student who giggles, for example, might be doing so out of discomfort and not because he finds something funny.

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