Sunday, May 2, 2010

Privacy with Free, Foreign, or Shared IT Services

It’s amazing how quickly the menu of IT services has filled out.  I remember back in 1992 when I was asked to connect my employer of the day to the Internet.  I wasn’t quite sure what that meant or where to turn to do it.  It was difficult, expensive, and slow…  18 years later, the Internet is the underpinning to everything we do.

We have many teachers and students that use free Internet services such as imagefor encyclopedia, imagefor finding info, people, tools, and storing / sharing documents, imagefor instant messaging, storing documents, networking, imagefor access and storing / sharing educational videos, imagefor screen casting lessons, imagefor professional networking, imageto host their blogs, and imageto write collaboratively.  I am interested in what steps teachers or Districts take to address privacy concerns with free services.  I know in our District it’s not a formalized process.  Teachers learn from others and use their own good judgment to take certain precautions.  They may create class, instead of student personal, blogs.  They might create “fake” names for their students to use.  They “probably” monitor student created content for acceptable language. 

A lawyer asked me a question the other day, while discussing the topic of privacy, District and teacher responsibilities, etc. in an online world: “are we acting like a firm and judicious parent”?  In other words are we educating teachers, students, and parents and providing guidelines for using online tools in a safe manner including protecting student privacy.  I think in our case, we’re lacking in this area.

I have been looking at the services we run in-house such as email for students, and wondering why we offer such a service.  Students, as they reach the middle years (grade 6-8), are often obtaining their own personal email accounts.  We provide accounts to make it easier for teachers to exchange mail with their students and to be able to monitor.  The cost required to provide email for students isn’t tremendous but it is significant enough for the hardware, storage, licensing, upgrades, etc. required.  Microsoft has offered to host student email for free with theirimageservice.  They will configure it so that the student’s District network login and their mailbox is linked – their email address would remain the same as it is now.  District IT staff would administer the mailboxes, teachers would still have access to monitor, etc.  I think it’s a great opportunity! 

So, what’s stopping us?  A main issue is the USA Patriot Act and the conflict it creates with our BC FIPPA privacy legislation.  You can read more about a BC privacy commission opinion on this here if you like but this and what our lawyer told me indicates we cannot take advantage of Microsoft’s offer.  Our lawyer explained that with consent of a person we could have certain District personal information stored outside Canada.  However, minors (our students) cannot give consent.  We can’t obtain it from their parents either.  A court of law would have to grant consent. We are obligated as a public entity to demonstrate reasonable control over the information including who could access it.  The USA Patriot Act grants the US Gov’t certain powers over US company’s and their information holdings which means any of our information stored by a US company would potentially be within the reach of the US Gov’t, outside of our control.  My understanding then is that moving any of our student related information and services outside of Canada is prohibited by law.

Shared IT services are gaining interest in British Columbia for school districts.  Our first effort in this area was image, the BC Enterprise Student Information System. It is hosted by a Vancouver company and the system is operated / maintained by Fujitsu Canada on behalf of all school districts and the BC Ministry of Education.  There is work underway to attempt to move payroll and HR IT systems into a shared IT services model as well.  I met a few weeks ago with several of my colleagues in neighboring school districts and we created a list of possible shared IT services and considered which we felt would make the most sense.  Personally, I have mixed feelings about shared IT services – an organization has to give up a lot of control, choice, and flexibility for this to work.  It can be very expensive, frustrating, and difficult to manage, govern, and continuously improve.  I think the main advantage of BC-based shared IT services vs. foreign hosted in this context is that the information is protected by BC privacy legislation.  I’m mixed on the advantages of shared vs. in-house…  we run a fairly lean shop and I’m not convinced yet that shared IT services are less costly or experience better service.

I worry about the privacy teachers, students, families are giving up every day by tapping into free online services.  I’m one of them though – I write this blog post using Windows Live Writer (free tool  from Windows Live) and will post it to Blogspot (Google’s free blog service), and promote it with Twitter (a free networking tool).  For these three services, I have three different accounts and personal information, ideas, etc. about me are stored and accessible to others online.

I think it will become more and more important to create good guidance for using free and other online tools in our classrooms.  Our lawyer advised as much and that we need to create educational programs to support our teachers, students, and their parents.

I would love to hear from others about what you are doing in this area. Do you have modern guidelines for using online tools in safe ways that protect student privacy where necessary – could you share the guidelines?  What education do you provide to teachers, students, and families?

6 comments:

  1. Hi Brian ... you have presented a LOT of ideas in a short space so here my thinking on privacy issues briefly.

    We believe that student data and student privacy is very much the concern of our school district. Parents want to know that we consider the security and privacy of student data to be of paramount importance.

    Saying that accomplishing this is not a trivial issue, particularly if we want to encourage teachers to explore the value of collaboration tools and resources which are so readily available on the internet.

    In Saanich we have implemented Moodle for all school web sites which allow teachers to utilize the web 2.0 tools (synchronous and asynchronous) that universities are so familiar with in their courses. This however does not enable more sophisticated social networking environments like Facebook and MySpace.

    We need to give the teachers freedom to explore these options while maintaining the integrity of our students privacy and safety. With that in mind we are also starting a pilot of Elgg social networking sofware which we hope will allow teachers who want to move ahead but in a moderated and safe environment.

    We are considering writing agents which will allow for seamless data transfer between the two environments so that much of the course and class information is kept in Moodle while students can post pictures, "twitter" and all of the other things Elgg can enable in that environment. I would like to see more cooperation and collaboration between districts on solutions like this.

    Its not a perfect solution but it does allow us to have greater control than we would have if teachers and students used Blogger, Facebook and other environments.

    Gregg Ferrie
    Director of IT - Saanich School District

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  2. Hello Brian,

    We are currently in the process of changing messaging and collaboration platforms. We wrestled with the idea of moving to the cloud, seriously considering Google Apps for EDU, the Microsoft Live@EDU service, and a few other hosted services like Zimbra. In the end the Microsoft offering was too commercial, I was unhappy with Google's integration with some directory service seciruty features, and Zimbra was too expensive to be hosted.

    In the end we are changing platforms, but staying in house. From a software licensing standpoint we end up saving roughly $5100/year for 1800 email accounts, only 300 of which are staff. With server virtualization now mature, the actual hardware cost to support this was trivial, and far outweighed the potential concern of a potential privacy loss to the cloud.

    You did hit on one item that I currently believe strongly in. The share service that is BCeSIS is one of the best large scale service implementations that "just works". Speking with our ST who just came back from the Ministry meetings (he also sits on the board of Northern Health) and its clear there is a strong desire to move towards more shared services.

    One such item that seems on the surface to make enourmous sense is the functions of human resource and integrated payroll systems. Speaking only for my school district, the annual licensing costs are astronomical when compared to the private sector by scale. Because we are a small school district, but we have reasonably elegant accounting, finance, and HR needs, we can't just fit into a off the shelf package. I think its just a matter of time before provincially we need to start looking at something like this, in the same sort of model as BCeSIS.

    I don't think we will see any sort of mass migrations to the cloud, but I do think the hybrid model of a hosted shared service will become increasingly important to the way we take care of the business side of education. this lends itself well to the idea of school district consolidations as well. I might regret that last sentence!

    Tim Dressel
    Director of IT - Prince Rupert SD52

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  3. Gregg: yes I like your idea of integrating moodle with elgg. I wrote a post http://www.shift2future.com/2010/01/technology-powered-learning.html where I reference a higher ed example of integrating free to institutional services. I think your adoption of something like elgg inhouse can work though if it isn't controlled too much. The other challenge though is choice. Students and teachers more and more want to choose the platforms they use and we can't provide them all! We have social medial capabilities in our internal system but it's too "private". We need to think about opening things up more but even then, some people want choice. It will be a balancing act. Then there's the privacy question... :-) Thanks for writing in on this topic.

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  4. Tim: sounds like you've done the soul searching and made some changes that work for your District. Your comments about BCeSIS "just works" is interesting. I've been involved with sourcing and implementing a shared student system, (now known as BCeSIS) for over 10 years. Most users of BCeSIS unfortunatley wouldn't share your perspective that it just works. Shared services have a host of challenges: lack of agility / difficult to change and enhance, high cost, layers of governance, to name a few. I'm worried that our sector is now being pulled into a shared payroll and perhaps HR system and we still don't have BCeSIS working well yet - it can, but there are changes required. We need to be cautious as a sector and not be seduced by the "promise" of shared services - let's get it right first. Sorry, got onto a soap box :-)

    As to District consolidation... ya, that's on all our minds isn't it. Again, care is important, as is purpose and goals. Unfortunately politics can often overshadow reason in topics like this.

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  5. One of the original promises of BCeSIS was the ability to to publish student grades to the web with the hope of improving communication with parents. That has not become reality for a wide variety of reasons. While looking for other ways of doing this I happened upon Edline, a service that provides school web sites, teacher web sites and gradebooks online. There may be many reasons for or against using a service like this, but the Patriot Act vs FOIPPA issue made it a non-starter. We're considering an in-house solution instead.

    If BC school districts are going to benefit from cloud computing or other online services widely available south of the 49th, we may have to resort to shared services.

    While I have also had many frustrations with our first venture into shared services (BCeSIS), it has also brought us many benefits. I think the benefits are greatest for smaller districts that could never do something similar on their own. Sharing services is never going to be easy but I think it will be worth it in the long run.

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  6. Mark: sounds like you've come to a similar conclusion on the where to host. I agree that shared services is probably a better fit for smaller districts. In time, the flexibility might be there to reduce concerns for larger districts...

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