Open Letter to School District 61 on the use of Google Apps For Education (GAFE)

Thank you for the opportunity to offer feedback relating to the use of GAFE in the classrooms of School District 61.

I have two children enrolled in the school system and appreciate the importance that digital literacy will continue to play in their lives. I am a software developer and for the last twelve years the focus of my work has been on building open source products that serve government, post-secondary institutions and government agencies. I have studied and produced machine learning algorithms in order to demystify and comprehend their complexities. I am a member of the IAPP and am familiar with FIPPA as it pertains to technical requirements to ensure the secure transfer, storage and access of personally identifiable information. As a parent and technologist I am compelled to share my concerns, make an appeal for servicing the public good and offer a summary of the risks posed by continuing to sanction the use of GAFE in the classroom.

My objections to GAFE are based on the following assumptions:

Parental consent, while legally sufficient, is an insufficient mechanism to protect the privacy of children and the confidentiality of student records because

  • It assumes parents have adequate digital literacy to make informed choices about their children’s privacy.
  • It assumes school district immunity despite obligations under Section 79.1.b of the B.C. School Act.
  • It assumes Google has incentive to adequately inform parents about the risks of data retention, profiling and automated decision making.
  • It assumes computational statistical inferences derived from machine learning algorithms doesn’t threaten the privacy of children.

I offer five recommendations.

  1. Strengthen the conditions for consent to be given.
  2. Expand the definition of digital literacy and offer learning opportunities for parents and teachers.
  3. Make it as easy to withdraw consent as it is to give consent.
  4. Create meaningful alternatives for students of parents who opt out.
  5. Phase out and discontinue use of GAFE in the classroom.

1. Strengthen the conditions for consent to be given.

Currently consent is expressed as an ‘opt-out’, all or nothing paradigm. Instead, and consistent with the General Data Protection Regulation explicit consent should be sought for each new data processing operation. In addition,

  • parents must dedicate significant time and effort fully understanding terms of service documents.
  • parents must know and understand the laws of foreign jurisdictions.
  • parents must be familiar with the ubiquity, pervasiveness and risks that come with machine learning, algorithmic bias and profiling.
  • Parents must contend with the fact that there are no specific, district sponsored alternatives to GAFE.

These factors create a situation where the balance of power is not with parents, and those who could be better informed are consenting to a long term legal agreement that is onerous, ambiguous and unspecific. In this context, a presumption against consent would better serve the public good.

Consent must be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous. Terms of use agreements and privacy policies are lengthy legal documents which are habitually passed over. It’s common practice to give them cursory attention thinking there might be better (some) protection in simply not knowing what is being agreed to. GAFE privacy policies and consent forms are no exception.

The lack of alternatives to GAFE makes opting out seem less like a choice. If GAFE is an optional, voluntary, supplementary tool then why did my children’s school divest itself of a computer lab and replace it completely with Google Chromebooks and GAFE? Without a district supported alternative to GAFE, a significant barrier to education is created. Without alternatives in place, there is a tacit assumption that parents are expected to sign away their children’s privacy rights so that they may pursue an education. This is unacceptable.

2. Expand the definition of digital literacy and offer learning opportunities for parents and teachers.

Opportunities for parents to know about potential harms should accompany any request for parental consent. The parents to whom I spoke with and who signed the consent form were not aware of any potential for harm nor did they have sufficient technical experience which could have given them the ability to make an informed choice. It seemed as though sanction from the school district was all that was required for them to be assured they had little to be concerned about.

The meaning of digital literacy for some teachers and, I fear, for children in the district is that it will be equated with ‘learning how to use Google products’. While the expectation that teachers be subject matter experts in all areas is unrealistic, a definition of digital literacy that doesn’t include a critical evaluation of commercial technology products is an inadequate representation of what it is to be digitally literate. If teachers don’t know and the parents don’t know, how can we expect that children will be given a fair chance to figure it out before the harm is already done?

It seems plausible that the move to GAFE was justified on an economic basis given the low cost of Chromebooks and the reduced infrastructure and administrative overhead that comes with software as a service. The true cost, unfortunately, is that our children become the product. With 20,000 students in SD61 alone, Google has gained a significant market share at a very low cost and will have initiated the process of creating a permanent digital record of soon-to-be consumers familiar with their products. How is this justified?

What professional development opportunities are available to teachers with respect to digital literacy that includes a critical evaluation of the intentions behind commercial products in the classroom?

3. Make it as easy to withdraw consent as it is to give consent.

The form for consent was provided by the school and currently hosted on the school district website. Does it not also make sense to include or make available a form to withdraw consent? If withdrawing consent is not easy to access then how many parents will be inclined to pursue it or even know it’s an option?

4. Create meaningful alternatives for students of parents who opt out.

When I asked about what learning opportunities would be available to my son if I did not give consent it appeared as though those alternatives were generated in the moment, on an ad-hoc basis. What concerns me is how this will continue to play out throughout my children’s participation in the public school system.

This lack of specific alternatives needs to be addressed at the district level so that schools are equipped to provide meaningful learning opportunities in digital literacy without being mediated by an American advertising company. As it currently stands I’m not aware of any district level initiative and my children have already had to deal with feelings of exclusion, or ‘otherness’ as a result of our decision to opt out.

5. Discontinue the use of GAFE in the classroom.

Section 79.1.b of the B.C. School Act requires school boards to “ensure the confidentiality of the information contained in the student records and ensure privacy for students and their families.”

If school work is being submitted in Google Apps, that work is part of the student record. The obligation of the school board to ensure that confidentiality needs to outweigh the perceived immunity granted by parental consent.



Brad Payne is currently the lead developer for the Open Textbook Project whose work focuses on open source software using PHP (LAMP). When not contributing to other developers’ projects on github, he builds his own. Through exploiting API’s and with a penchant for design patterns, he helps BCcampus implement new technologies for post-secondary institutions. Prior to his current position at BCcampus, Brad worked in IT at Camosun College and the BC Ministry of Education.

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