Looking for silver linings: Educating about privacy and security in our increasingly online world

By Dr Kay Oddone

Dr Kay Oddone explores the role school library staff can play in educating students and teachers about online privacy and security.

Computer keyboard with fingerprint, representing secure access

As schools were plunged into remote learning earlier this year, the education sector experienced what could only be described as a ‘digital deluge’. Edtech platforms and content creators rushed to assist educators and students who were suddenly searching for technologies that would enable teaching and learning to continue while hunkering down at home. Email inboxes were flooded with offers of free access to resources and new educational tools. Facebook groups and Twitter chats multiplied as educators exchanged lists full of websites and apps that could be useful in a new online learning context.

The COVID-19 crisis has fast-tracked educators’ experience of remote learning. This has created the opportunity to explore different digital tools to engage, communicate and connect with students. An openness to explore and embrace new technologies is hopefully one that will continue beyond the pandemic, and lead to innovative, and future-focused pedagogies. However, increasing use of technologies is accompanied by increasing digital security risks. We who work in school libraries, are challenged to fulfil our role as leaders of digital and critical literacies, to ensure that as new technology continues to be introduced, all members of our school community are aware of the associated risks, to ensure the digital safety and security of the students in our care, and the school community.

Student privacy and security

Spending weeks or months engaging in remote learning has highlighted the value of strong digital citizenship — and the realisation that our conception of it should perhaps be broader than previously considered. While digital citizenship programs have (rightly) focused upon cybersafety and digital etiquette, areas such as our digital footprint and digital access also contribute to how students understand their privacy and security online. As our digital lives become more complex, it is important to ensure students realise that their online privacy and security extends beyond toggles in their social media settings.

As students engage with a wider range of digital tools, their digital footprint naturally expands in ways that they may not even be aware of. Although we remind students to be careful of what they post online, they may not realise that their online activities are also contributing to their own and others’ ‘uncontainable self’ (Barbour & Marshall, 2012). The uncontainable self is the representation of self that is created online by others. To manage this, students should be in the practice of making regular searches of their own online presence, preferably through a search engine such as duckduckgo.com, which does not use personalisation algorithms to determine search results.

The move to remote learning also highlighted areas of digital access that may have not been explicitly taught, with the assumption that students would be connecting with the internet and using devices provided by the school. When students (and teachers) began using their home networks, and accessing learning using a wide range of devices, it became apparent that we must educate ourselves and our students for real world access to technology.

It is our role, as educators and librarians, to ensure that students and teachers are aware of the implications of data collection.

Updates from the Australian Cyber Security Centre (2020) highlight the fact that security practices we take for granted (such as using a different strong passphrase for every application) are perhaps not as regularly practised as we might assume. With the increased use of webcams, the important practice of covering the lens when not in use is another often overlooked, but potentially serious, safety concern (Cook, 2020). These habits are something the teacher librarian can continue to support even as life slowly returns to ‘normal’.

Keeping students’ data safe

You may have heard of the term ‘surveillance capitalism’, coined by Shoshanna Zuboff in her book of the same name. Zuboff argues that through the proliferating apps that record our personal data, companies are now capturing data on a scale that allows them to use ‘the real-time flow of your daily life — your reality — in order directly to influence and modify your behaviour for profit’ (Zuboff, 2019). While this may sound wildly dystopian, it is nevertheless a fact that our interactions online are increasingly used to gather not only our personal details, but also our location, facial expressions, daily routines and personal activities.

It is our role, as educators and librarians, to ensure that students and teachers are aware of the implications of data collection, and the need to take the time to read through privacy statements, terms and conditions and required permissions.

Questions to be considered include:

  • How does this company use the data it has collected and is the data limited to what is needed for the application to operate?
  • Where are the servers which store this data located?
  • Will this data be deleted when the account is closed or the application uninstalled?
  • Who has access to this data?
  • How does this application’s use of data align with the school’s data governance policy?

Students also should be aware of the implications of having their data compromised, and of how their data may be used (or misused). As we have witnessed with the development of COVID-19 tracking apps earlier in the year, our capacity to gather and collate big data can be used for positive purposes — however, it can also be exploited for profit.

While human society struggles to deal with the ongoing fallout from COVID-19, there are some, scattered silver linings. Becoming aware of the ways in which we can deepen our own and others’ conceptions of digital citizenship, as well as the opportunity to highlight the importance of a considered approach to technology adoption, are two of these positive outcomes. As teacher librarians, we are challenged to enhance our own knowledge and to pass this knowledge on to our school communities. As we continue our exploration into the new technological frontiers that remote learning has opened, let’s do so with an open mind and an informed, and empowered approach.


Kay Oddone

Dr Kay Oddone

Head of Libraries at Australian International School, Singapore

Kay Oddone has written more extensively about privacy and digital footprints on her blog, Linking Learning. You can read more at linkinglearning.com.au/ privacy-even-more-important-in-2020 and linkinglearning.com.au/digital-footprintsmine- yours-ours or find Kay on Twitter @KayOddone.