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AUSTIN, Texas – As more technology makes its way into the nation’s classrooms, more data on children is collected, shared and stored. That raises more concerns about the privacy and security of that information.

Indeed, when Richard Culatta, the U.S. Department of Education’s director of educational technology, spoke last week at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas, he joked about a spike in the number of panels and presentations devoted to data privacy.

“There was one the first year, two the second year, three the third year and in the fourth year there are 437,” he said. “That, of course, is this year, and I may have gotten some of those numbers wrong.”

“We’ve spent enough time talking about the problem. It’s time to roll up our sleeves.”

In fact at least 10 panels and presentations at the convention included specific mention of privacy, and a number of other events dealt in related issues, such as effective use of data.

Culatta spoke at a session that included leaders from the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a membership organization for school technology officials and the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit organization that advocates for best practices for use of data in schools.

Many sectors, not just education, are rushing to find ways to use the tidal wave of electronic data created by digital devices. Those who deal with data tied to K-12 schools find themselves under special scrutiny because they’re working with children. Schools must find a balance that allows teachers to try new innovations and still ensures the programs used are secure, several officials speaking at SXSWedu said.

Aimee Guidera, founder and executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit group that advocates use of data in education, said school leaders must clearly explain and disclose which programs they are using, what information is collected and why it is necessary. An annual audit published on a school district’s website, for instance, would help parents and teachers, she said during the SXSWedu panel.

“People have no information,” she said, adding: “We have to do a better job explaining.”

During SXSWedu, a group of more than 30 organizations representing schools, businesses and advocates released “guiding principles” for use of data in schools, along with a website to explain them to the public, And the same day, the winners of a competition to highlight the successes of groups that found solutions in schools were announced.

“We’ve spent enough time talking about the problem,” Culatta said. “It’s time to roll up our sleeves.”

School officials and businesses aren’t always sure of the rules, leading to widely varying approaches to the adoption of new technology. Educators are adopting these tools, which are often free, but they don’t always have the training to vet security (or effectiveness). At the opposite end of the spectrum, some schools ban even the most basic tools, out of fear they will run afoul of state and federal laws governing the use of student information.

In a session at SXSWedu about E-Rate, a federal program that helps schools pay for technology, Culatta said his team had heard from a school leader who banned Google documents. The reason? The leader mistakenly believed that a federal law banned use of this common tool in schools. The U.S. Department of Education recently created a hotline for school leaders and developers who have questions about what is allowed.

There are federal laws that regulate the use of information collected about children. In recent years, as use of computer programs in the classroom has increased, some state legislators have proposed additional rules. In 2015 alone, policymakers have already proposed 138 laws in 39 states, according to the Data Quality Campaign. President Barack Obama has also suggested developing new rules.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more stories about blended learning, and stay up to date on the latest trends by subscribing to our free newsletter.

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