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The Pros and Cons of Schools Using the Cloud

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A study released Friday by Fordham University, "Privacy and Cloud Computing in Public Schools," raises concerns about whether schools are asking the right questions about the privacy of student data stored remotely. One issue that received particular attention is paid to third-party cloud services that store student records.

What is clear from the study's findings is that school systems find tremendous value in online educational resources. 95 percent of schools surveyed are taking advantage of cloud-based services that allow teachers and administrators to better serve students and their families.

Homework can be assigned and completed online where it is unlikely to be eaten by the family dog. Parents and teachers can better monitor their students' progress to help them reach higher academic achievement while mobile applications are helping to modernize classrooms providing an interactive learning environment.

It used to be that parents learned about their children's school performance a few times a year through report cards or PTA meetings. Advances in online education now allow for student achievement or challenges to be spotted early on, helping to assess where additional work is needed. Administrators can use anonymized data to measure school performance and quickly identify successful coursework and methods.

We see the greatest impact on student performance when teachers, parents, and schools are all engaged. The hallmark of the new digital classroom is the improved ability to manage and assess a student's work while facilitating interaction between parents and educators to help guide a child's progress. Yet the promise of these new technologies may be lost if privacy concerns are not sufficiently addressed.

This is the key takeaway from the Fordham report. The clearest indication of where improvements can be made are in the contracts that school systems have with cloud providers. Researchers discovered that schools are often unaware of third party contractors' use of student data. In many cases, school contracts with online service providers lack clear guidance for safeguarding this information as required under federal law.

The Fordham study recommends that schools be clear with online service providers about the strict requirements that exist for managing student information. It also suggests that school administrators should be transparent about this process so that parents are aware of these services and the appropriate care is given to children's privacy.

One example of how transparency can work is found in the Know What's Inside™ program. This collaborative effort between ACT and the 1500-member group of parent app makers, Moms With Apps, puts a premium on data use transparency. The initiative highlights companies that adopt strong privacy standards for children's education apps and provides a trusted resource for parents with mobile devices.

When parents start from an informed position about how their child's sensitive information will be safeguarded in accordance with the law, they are far more likely to embrace the benefits that cloud services offer. Initiatives like Know What's Inside™ demonstrate the importance of taking the first step to provide this reassurance by identifying and promoting industry best practices.

It is critical to the success of cloud education that online service providers explain how they meet the privacy standards for student data. They must also clearly convey this information to school administrators who will face questions from parents on this issue. Taking proactive steps like these will give parents and schools the continued confidence to employ these resources that hold such promise for our children's education.