Confessions of a Privacy Novice: I Gave my Students’ Privacy to Google

Privacy, Technology

By: Kate Lechtenberg

If asked, I would tell anyone that I value my online privacy, but truth be told, I’ve never pushed my abstract commitment to privacy toward a concrete step to protect my myself — or my students — online. I tend to be too trusting, and I take the path of least resistance, shrugging off privacy concerns with a glib, “I don’t have anything to hide!”

The way I jumped head first into Google Apps for Education as a teacher and school librarian exemplifies my problematic ask-privacy-questions-later approach to student data security. When I read “How Google Took Over the Classroom” in the New York Times last week, I saw myself and my role in Google’s ascension to the K-12 tech throne in a new, more problematic light.

Early adopters vs. the bureaucracy

In short, I’m the poster child early Google Apps adopter that the savvy folks at Google set their sights on leveraging to spread their products: I was inviting my students to use Gmail back when it was still invitation-only in the 2005 Beta; I started using Google Docs with my English students in 2007 after my brother showed me how he was using them in his work as a field organizer for the Obama campaign (if it was good enough for Obama, it was good enough for me!); and when I became a librarian in neighboring district, I started using Google Sites in order to bypass that district’s clunky, outdated school website system, much to the chagrin of my district technology director and the communications director.

To me — the idea-focused, pedagogically motivated teacher who, according to the NYT piece, Google sought to mobilize — district officials who wanted to take their time investigating the larger privacy and branding ramifications were just getting in the way of my students’ ability to collaborate and my ability to use flexible, 21st century tools.

As a busy teacher and school librarian, I was easily seduced by any tool that promised to make the things I valued easier: providing feedback, student collaboration, multimodal creation, and authentic products and audiences. I justified bypassing district rules my reminding myself that anything that made teaching more sustainable and student learning more authentic was worth it — and my district administrators should see that.

But now that I’m out of the rush of daily teaching pressures, I can see more clearly the importance of concerns about how companies like Google collect student data. Common Sense Media’s Bill Fitzgerald is quoted in the New York Times: “Unless we know what is collected, why it is collected, how it is used and a review of it is possible, we can never understand with certainty how this information could be used to help or hurt a kid.” And I would pay attention to warning signs when security breaches occur with edtech like Edmodo prove that it can happen in my classroom.  

Tech grinch or responsible privacy advocate?

So, now that I feel a little slimy about my role in this Google game, with its yet-to-be-determined consequences for student privacy, would I do anything differently?

Honestly, I still don’t think I could say that I wouldn’t still jump to pilot a promising new tool in my classroom or promote a new app in my library. Teaching is hard work, and engaging students in meaningful learning requires educators to innovate in our rapidly changing world.

Screenshot of But I would certainly enter new tech endeavors with more critical questions about how student data will be used, and I would demand answers before passing the point of no return instead of being lured by the thrill of being an early adopter.  Guides like the ALA’s Library Privacy Guidelines for Students in K-12 Schools and ConnectSafely’s Educator’s Guide to Student Data Privacy give early adopters useful starting points for asking the hard questions early in the game.

And instead of seeing cautious parents and administrators as anachronistic killjoys, I would also share my questions and findings with all stakeholders concerned with students’ safety and security. Yes, vibrant teaching and learning thrives on new tech tools, but we have to look at the long game to consider how pedagogical choices might impact our students’ futures as consumers and citizens.

That’s not being a tech grinch, that’s being responsible.


Kate LechtenbergKate Lechtenberg is in her first year of doctoral studies in Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Iowa. After teaching high school English for 10 years and working as a school librarian for four years, her research focuses on how affect, emotion, and morality intersect with the structural constraints of educational policies and standards. Lechtenberg teaches a young adult literature course for preservice teachers and English majors and a course on collection development for preservice teacher librarians in the School of Library and Information Science, and she is currently serving on the AASL Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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