Patti Bacchus: When it comes to online learning tools, proceed with caution

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      The rush to move learning to online platforms is a risky time for kids’ safety and privacy while they’re participating in classes or schoolwork online. It’s important to slow down and proceed with caution.

      Public-school districts often struggle to keep up with technology, and some lack the resources and expertise to stay on top of Internet safety protocols and training, at the best of times.

      Now we’re in the worst of times.

      As we near the end of what for most K-12 students is the second week of being back to “school” after spring break, which is nothing like what school was just a month ago, many educators, parents, and students are getting a crash course in online platforms that enable real-time video conferencing and other information-sharing.

      Tools like Zoom are exploding in popularity, and for good reason. Zoom is easy to use and accessible, and it only takes minutes to learn how to use.

      The B.C. government announced last week that it has “secured and funded licenses for the application Zoom for all K-12 public and independent schools in B.C.”, saying it “will allow consistent access for educators who choose to use it, giving them more ways to communicate with students and parents”.

      It seems they may have zoomed in a little too fast for most school districts, which are, appropriately, concerned about Internet privacy and security and the potential risks of Zoom.

      Is it safe for your kids to use Zoom?

      I used Zoom for the first time myself last week, and I found it easy and convenient and adequate for the meeting. The discussion we were having didn’t involve confidential or sensitive information, and all the participants were adults. I didn’t host it, and I’m not sure if the host took advantage of all the security features available.

      If I was a teacher or school administrator, however, or parent of a school-aged kid, I’d want to be cautious about using a tool that could compromise students’ privacy or security. In the past few weeks, there have been widely publicized cases of “Zoom bombing”, where someone “crashes” an online meeting with obscene or racist content.

      In the USA, the FBI issued a warning on March 30 after it received multiple reports that classes using Zoom for video teleconferencing were disrupted by pornographic hate images, along with other threatening language.

      In a letter to her graduate students this week, Vancouver Island University professor Julia Hengstler, who specializes in privacy and educational technology, outlined privacy and security risks of using Zoom, noting that the risks seem to be increasing.


      She notes in her letter (which she shared with me) that some risks can be mitigated through informed use by the meeting host, but a number are beyond the host’s control. She outlines a series of steps Zoom meeting hosts can take to minimize risks, including: not publicizing meeting information in any public areas; generating random meeting IDs instead of using stable links; always using and requiring meeting passwords; enabling a waiting room where the host must admit attendees to the session, and disabling video for attendees and screen-sharing for everyone except the host.

      Got that?

      It’s a lot to expect from inexperienced Zoom users—which is most of us—and most teachers. And that’s not all. There are also concerns about Zoom’s iOS app sending users’ data to Facebook, even for those who don’t have Facebook accounts.

      Hengstler’s letter to her students also highlights a report from Toronto’s Citizen Lab that revealed some Zoom meeting information was being transmitted to Chinese servers when Zoom’s domestic servers were overwhelmed by its surge in use since the pandemic hit.

      Some B.C. school districts are proceeding cautiously

      While B.C.’s Ministry of Education may think it struck a great deal for K-12 schools to use Zoom, many school districts seem to disagree. New York City's department of education banned the use of Zoom for remote teaching, and it appears that most B.C. school districts are looking to other tools, such as Microsoft Teams, to support continued off-site learning for students.

      Here in B.C., the Vancouver School Board (VSB) decided to stick with Microsoft Teams Classroom as its online collaborative space for teachers and students, since it limits participation to staff and students with VSB accounts and provides a common experience for students and staff. It seems like a prudent approach, although I’ve heard from some teachers that it lacks some of the positive features of Zoom.

      Safety first

      I know many students, parents, and educators are finding the shift to teaching and learning from home frustrating. I’ve heard from parents with multiple kids who are overwhelmed with the emails and information they’re getting from their kids’ schools, while others complain they’re not hearing enough.

      Many teachers are struggling to redesign their lesson plans to work digitally and are struggling with glitchy technology and unfamiliar applications.

      Parents who need to get their own work done at home and may share family devices are struggling too, in many cases.

      It has created a perfect storm, where kids’ privacy and information could be compromised in the rush to move things online and get schoolwork done.

      We don’t know what the potential consequences could be for kids whose privacy is compromised online a month, a year, or 50 years from now. Once information is out there, you can’t retrieve it. It may seem innocuous enough now, but with facial-recognition technology and other advances, having your child’s information in the hands of foreign—or even domestic—entities carries unknown risks.

      It’s worth erring on the side of caution and not jumping aboard with fun and easy-to-use tech tools that appear to be free (you may not pay money, but you pay with your private information).

      Although you may be frustrated by your school district’s restrictions on the tools you can use, be grateful they’re taking privacy and security seriously. If they’re not, start asking questions and don’t be afraid to refuse to have your kids participate in online learning platforms if you have concerns about privacy and security.

      What was the Ministry of Education thinking?

      I’m not as impressed by the Ministry of Education’s role in this. By promoting its deal with Zoom, smaller districts with less tech expertise may be inclined to take advantage of it without fully considering the risks. I understand, however, that they’re working to provide school districts and teachers with accessible resources on Internet safety. That’s good.

      I’ll cut them some slack given the times we’re  and the pressure they’re under to figure out how to keep kids learning while keeping them at home.

      I personally like Zoom, and I think that with appropriate precautions it can be used safely for many purposes. I’ll continue to use it myself and among other informed adults, and only for discussions that aren’t of a private or sensitive nature. Having said that, I think that school districts like New York City and the VSB that are choosing to limit its use for the time being are probably wise to do so.

      Advice for parents

      After speaking with Hengstler earlier this week, I called Darren Laur, who is also known as the White Hatter, and asked him about how to keep kids safe online during the pandemic. Laur and his White Hatter team are experts in Internet safety and digital literacy and provide support and guidance to schools, businesses, parents, and students.

      Laur says any online platform can pose risks, and that’s it’s important that educators and students know how to use them safely to minimize risks as much as possible.

      He has several tips for students and parents, including simple things like making sure your device’s camera isn’t facing into the home, where a lot more information may be gleaned about the student or their family than necessary. He says to try to have it facing a wall and to make sure students are appropriately clothed when they’re participating on online discussions with video.

      He says to use only first names where possible when logging on to platforms and to minimize sharing private, identifiable information.

      Laur recommends trial runs and role-playing with online tools before your child uses them for real, and to tell you kids to never take their devices into the bathroom (like someone did in a widely circulated Zoom meeting).

      We’re all having to learn a lot of new things in a hurry due to the pandemic and the restrictions it has put on our lives. It’s important to be patient and take precautions and not let our guard down when it comes to protecting students’ privacy and security. We can never guarantee 100 percent safety. Like riding in a car, we know there will be risks, but we fasten our seat belts and make sure all the safety features are working, follow the rules and speed limits, and enjoy the ride.

      Happy learning everyone. Stay safe out there.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.