MCPS Says Parents Have No Need To Worry About Classroom Chromebook Privacy
The chief technology officer for Montgomery County Public Schools says student emails and personal information are not being sold, shipped to or marketed by software vendors or outside companies.
Sherwin Collette, who’s overseeing the rollout of the school system’s Google Chromebook program, met with a number of concerned Bethesda and Chevy Chase parents last week. Since the school system’s Chromebook initiative was approved last summer, about 45,000 of the devices — equipped with a set of Google education apps — have been distributed to elementary schools, middle schools and some high schools.
On Wednesday, Collette said MCPS has taken great strides to create a “walled garden,” around its network of Google education apps. Early last year Google came under fire when it acknowledged it had been scanning and indexing the contents of student emails for advertising purposes.
In January, Google pledged to stop the practice, which it commonly uses in non-education email systems such as Gmail.
“Early on with Google’s entrance into the educational arena, they didn’t do as clean a job of separating those worlds. Google is an advertising company by and large,” Collette said. “That was one of the things we looked at. Students are only able to communicate with other students and staff within MCPS. We are not selling or using any information.”
Collette said he had hoped to assuage some of those fears in the meeting last week with parents at Chevy Chase Elementary School.
Bethesda parents Mario and Assya Pascalev said they came away from the conversation wanting to see any official agreements between MCPS and Google, as well as more information on the school system’s new online registration system for middle and high schoolers.
The parents said they became concerned with privacy issues related to both initiatives when their son, a fifth grader at Chevy Chase Elementary, had his Google Chromebook rights taken away after he looked at an emoticon that a teacher judged to be inappropriate. Assya Pascalev said the emoticon was in a photo gallery app the school had signed up students to use without realizing the emoticon was there.
MCPS teachers can see the activities and emails their students take part in and send within its secure cloud-based system.
“We remind students and staff that we can see all of their communications,” Collette said. “If there is a student who has some inappropriate communication with another, let’s say in an email that is offensive or bullying, we tell them, ‘Even if you destroy it or put it in the trash, we can retrieve it.’
“We want teachers to have the ability to manage their classrooms and make sure that students are on-task,” Collette said.
Assya Pascalev, a bioethicist and philosophy professor at Howard University, said she’s less concerned about her son losing his Chromebook privileges than the data-mining and privacy issues she and her husband discovered while researching Google education apps.
Along with two other parents, the Pascalevs sent a letter outlining their concerns to Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations Vice President Michelle Gluck.
“We asked the teachers how they monitor children, who secures their data,” Assya Pacalev said. “Nobody seemed to have a very clear idea. We asked other parents and the principal. They just had this kind of faith that everything is fine.”
Pascalev claimed teachers will sometimes direct students to accept terms and conditions in order to run third-party apps.
Collette said the school system is working through a vetting process to figure out which third-party apps are useful for educational purposes and won’t jeopardize student privacy. Tilden Middle School, for example, has shared a Google Document with teacher reviews and discussion of apps.
“We want folks to share what they think is really good, but we certainly discourage and dissuade staff at any level from signing up to a subscription or to an app where they share student info,” Collette said.
Still, Collette said the secure system should protect against it.
He cited an example from last week, when a teacher and class were using a Promethean board for a lesson. Collette said the teacher tried to register on the Promethean website for a software upgrade, but the confirmation email was blocked by the school system’s secure network.
“It bounced back because we will not allow them to send or receive an email from a user not in the environment,” Collette said. “If it’s not another student or teacher or staff member in the domain, it’s not going to work.”
Collette said the school system’s technology department and schools are working around issues related to updating or improving current software or apps.
This school year, MCPS has rolled out the Google Chromebooks in grades 3 and 5 in elementary schools, grade 6 in middle schools and more recently, in some high school social studies classes. The Chromebooks come with Google’s set of apps, including a word-processing program, spreadsheet, email, storage and other web-based programs meant to make it easier for students and teachers to work with each other.
Students can access their work from home with their regular MCPS login information.
Assuming funding for next school year, Collette said MCPS will continue rolling out the Chromebooks in elementary school grades 2 and 4 and grade 7 in middle schools.
“The intent being, that when we start in grade 3 with them, that sort of classroom environment will follow them and they’ll be accustomed to it,” Collette said.
Parents at the meeting last week also expressed concern about Pearson Education, the company that has its hands in a number of educational products, including the upcoming Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC tests.
Unlike Google, Pearson has not signed the pledge against using student information for advertising purposes. This year, MCPS rolled out myMCPS, a new online class registration system for middle and high schoolers that uses Pearson technology.
But Collette said that’s where Pearson’s involvement ends. The myMCPS system simply uses Pearson’s master scheduling module, which is kept and housed in the school system’s own data system and which the company has no access to.
“We only work with them if we’re troubleshooting a problem,” Collette said. “We’re not shipping any data.”
Collette said MCPS has been using the module for years as its own master scheduling tool. The only difference now is that instead of writing out class choices on paper, students can use a personalized version of the scheduling module with their login information.
Collette said MCPS is looking into creating a parent advisory committee and launching a website “to demystify” questions about information privacy related to its new technology initiatives — especially when it comes to the Google Chromebooks.
“I’m a parent, so I get it,” Collette said. “We don’t give up our intellectual property.”
Photos via MCPS