How Does ‘The Cloud’ Affect Student Privacy Compliance?

Amid technical talk of bandwidth and clouds, understood by only some of the school administrators who have to make key decisions, there are questions about just how public information is when stored in "cloud-based computing." As Mike Bock asks in Education Week, will schools find themselves out of compliance with federal privacy law if their students' information is no longer stored on hard drives inside the school building?

Many schools have paid internet providers for large-volume email services for the last decade. As they upgrade to newer systems, some are tempted to use free cloud-based email and data storage services. Google, for example, offers free email and collaborative documents for schools. Large systems like the Chicago Public Schools could save several million dollars per year. In addition, as Chicago switches its systems over to Google's cloud services, school officials feel good about the capacity of Google's storage. It's reliable in addition to free.

The Chicago system is one of many districts around the country that are opting to use cloud-based computing services to improve the performance of their technologies and to save significant amounts of money. Cloud computing typically refers to software or a service that is accessible online and stored off-site. Rather than having a software program that has to be physically downloaded to every computer, and takes up space on a computer's hard drive or on a CD, users can simply dial in and access the program online.

The data still takes up "space," but it is bandwidth, not physical space on a CD. That is the first problem that schools face: do they have older equipment, or have they already spent money on tablets and laptops that can manage accessing cloud computing? If they are working on an older system in which the school's server has to provide bandwidth for students working at PCs, they could find the system crashing due to the volume of data streaming through. The cost of avoiding such problems will be prohibitive for many schools.

The State Educational Technology Directors Association recommends that school districts should have at least 100 megabytes per second per 1,000 students in the district, but districts that rely heavily on cloud applications would probably need a faster connection. And districts looking to cloud computing as a way to save money will first need to set up the high-bandwidth infrastructure that cloud computing needs, an investment that can cost thousands of dollars.

Savings to afford this change might be found in the free educational services available in the online "cloud," but the investment up front makes it difficult. Schools might be able to access science labs and libraries. Another possible savings comes from not maintaining IT workers to update and fix computers that would be updated automatically from the cloud.

But even when schools have invested millions in tablet computers so that they can manage the bandwidth, they need to consider privacy. Schools typically store all student information, from Social Security numbers, to grades, to personal medical records. In order to comply with the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, schools could need to get permission from each parent before sending student information to online storage. Some districts have faculty who are tech-savvy enough to set up cloud storage just for the school, but most districts do not have this resource.

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