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A piece of the PII

How school leaders can help students and staff protect personally identifiable information.

5 min read




No matter where you find yourself living and no matter what type of educational organization you work in, it is rare today to go more than a few minutes into a conversation before the talk circles back to elements of privacy and identity. Whether it is the fine print of an acceptable use policy, the difficulty of keeping personally identifiable information (PII) safe at all times or the challenges of getting some tech companies to treat your data as they would like theirs to be treated, when we are awash in the flow of information, data somewhere, somehow, is going to be leaked.

Schools and districts are in a tough spot. By their nature as learning institutions, they strive to make information access and sharing as easy as possible. And yet, due to the fact that information is so easy to share, and so often shared without much of a thought (when was the last time you entered credit card information or your social security number into a website hoping it was totally secure), schools have to be more restrictive than they might want to be.

It is a difficult balance, certainly. And leaders can help support this balance in a few central ways.

Model media magic. Leaders can support safe data use by refraining from sharing personally identifiable information in highly visible ways. For instance, leaders can avoid sharing dates of birthdays in blog posts or on social media and can avoid posting pictures of their homes with addresses clearly visible. While nothing negative may happen in these instances, positive PII role models are helpful in showing staff and students how wonderful tools can be used without necessarily putting others (or ourselves) at risk. Modeling good behavior also involves recognizing the cost/benefit of much of the technology we use. For instance, if we choose to use a personal device for work-related tasks (i.e. sending a work email from a personal cell phone), it is highly likely that we are putting our device at risk of being accessible to others if work-related information is requested from us at a later date. In other words, modeling involves both making good decisions and understanding the implications if we choose not to.

Innovate insightfully. When it comes to technology, bonus points are often awarded to the first people to get their hands dirty. There is a tremendous sense of accomplishment that comes from finding a new tech tool to apply to the education sphere, and more importantly, devising ways to use that tool to better the education of those we serve. These discoveries should never be disparaged. Instead, they should be analyzed for examples of insightful innovation as well as those that are less so. What is insightful innovation? It is a change in practice that comes from a mix of flexible exploration and focused thinking. To put it another way, we allow ourselves to explore within a realm of understanding; in this case, if we aren’t sure whether a certain tool will meet our data requirements, then we hit the brakes, slow down and make sure that we are following the rules of the road.

Let it go. Feel free to break into song if you must. But more importantly, we must recognize that some tools just weren’t meant to work well in school-related settings. There isn’t anything bad about tools that don’t want to play nice in the data privacy sandbox; we simply have to recognize that some companies would rather be free than engage in some of the restrictions that schools and districts have to enact. In these cases, it makes sense to walk away and let the tool go. If it has merit, let others explore it on their own (and you should feel free to do so as well), but keep it separate from the work you engage in professionally.

Data safety and security in an age where freedom of information is encouraged can seem like a pathway that leads us further from where we hope to be. And yet, there are ways for all of us to benefit from the greater wealth of information access we have today than we had even a few years before, while still making sure that we are protecting those who need us the most.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his


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