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Teaching Obstacles in Education: Protection of Data

Updated on May 22, 2013

Teaching has many obstacles and challenges associated with it. Some of the obstacles are on the student level, such as getting a student to understand a topic. Some obstacles are on the classroom level, such as teaching in such a way as to reach all learning styles. But some obstacles occur on the administrative level. These are pitfalls that need to be avoided. Some are school specific and some are general problems shared by all teachers. This articles examines one critical obstacle for teachers: keeping student data secure.

Why Be Careful about Student Information?

Twenty years ago, when a teacher posted grades it was done by printing out a list of social security numbers and grades. In this way a student could find his or her social security number and see the grade for the class. Times have changed considerably. With the surging of identity thieves, social security numbers and other sensitive data should be guarded vigorously. It does not take much data now for an identity thief to ruin a person's life. And those in education have access to that data.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was passed in 1974. The initial goal of the bill was to allow students access to educational records and permit them to have errors in that record changed. However, the bill goes much further and, within the last two decades, some of the clauses in the bill have become more important. With the rise in identity theft as well as the rise in unauthorized attempts to obtain student information, teachers are required more and more to become acquainted with FERPA. In a nutshell, if a student is age 18 or over, then nothing about that student can be disclosed to anybody except with the student's consent. If the student is under 18, then disclosure can be made to the student's parents or guardian. The disclosure of social security numbers and grades mentioned above violated FERPA and the students' privacy.

I Don't Release Student Information -- Do I?

Most teachers do not feel they violate a students privacy by releasing private information. The next few paragraphs discuss ways that may seem trivial, but may allow student information to be accessed by unauthorized individuals.

The first major area of concern is written records such as gradebooks, homework, and tests lying where someone unauthorized can examine them. Most readers reading the last sentence are thinking about grades on papers lying around unattended on a big table in a break room. There is just as much problem leaving these materials lie in an office. Here are some questions to ask.

  • While grading student work, do I leave the office without locking the door?
  • While examining student information whether on paper, do I have discussions with other people who could be looking at the information?
  • If I show a student his or her own data, does the manner in which I show it reveal another student's information?
  • After leaving the office for the day, do I leave student information including grades out where they can be accessed?

This last question is a very important one because after hours, the janitorial and maintenance staff has access to an office. While the janitors might be wonderful people, they are unauthorized to see student information. In addition, one never knows what connections the staff have.

If the answer to any of the questions above was "yes", there may be a problem with keeping student information private.

The second major area of concern is computerized records. These are secure and can only be accessed by authorized people. The last statement is not quite true. Here are some more questions.

  • Do I bring up student information on a computer and then go somewhere else for a few moments?
  • Do I have discussions with other people while there is student information on the computer screen?
  • Do I send out emails with student information such as grades?

If the answer to any of these is yes, there is a problem with student privacy.

Some may be wondering about the email issue. There are two reasons to never send out private information by email. First, the teacher does not know who has access to the student's email account. Email accounts can be accessed by parents, siblings, boy friends/girl friends, and many others. By sending out private information by email, the information could fall into anyone's hands. The second reason is that email is not a secure line of communication; it is pure text. Through the transmission process hackers with the right equipment can obtain this unencrypted information.

What to Do About Privacy

For the illustrations given above, the general rule is if it is paper, lock it up, and if it is electronic, shut it off. A teacher must always ask if what he or she is doing is allowing another person to acquire private data about a student. It is best to never send grades or other private data by email. There are online gradebooks available for transmitting grades. Other data can be reviewed face to face. Even though the email request was from the student's email account, a teacher really does not know who is on the other end. Teachers need to be over cautious and protect student personal data.

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