COVID-19, School Closures, and Digital Privacy


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Associate Dean Leah Plunkett and Dr. Monica Bulger, Host of the 30,000 Hours Podcast, discuss their recent guide titled, "What privacy, equity, and digital literacy issues should you pay attention to during COVID school closures?" Produced and Hosted by A. J. Kierstead

Read the guide at https://medium.com/@literacyonline/what-privacy-equity-and-digital-literacy-issues-should-you-pay-attention-to-during-covid-school-5a7f80f68210

Learn about Associate Dean Plunkett's book "Sharenthood: Why We Should Think before We Talk about Our Kids Online" at http://leahplunkett.com/

Subscribe to Dr. Monica Bulger's podcast at https://www.30000hours.com/podcast/

Never miss an episode by subscribing on Apple PodcastGoogle PlayStitcher, and Spotify!

Get an email when the latest episode releases!

UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law is now accepting applications for JD, Graduate Programs, and Online Professional Certificates at https://law.unh.edu 

Legal topics include digital privacy, technology, education, parenting

Read the Transcript

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

Long time collaborators, Dr. Monica Bulger and Associate Dean Leah Plunkett talk privacy equity and digital literacy around COVID-19 school closures.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

This is the Legal Impact presented by the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law, now accepting applications for JD graduate programs and online professional certificates. Learn more and apply at law.unh.edu. The opinions discussed are solely the opinion of the faculty or host, that do not constitute legal advice or necessarily represent the official views of the University of New Hampshire.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

Today's show is based around an article, a medium written by Leah and Monica, which I have linked in the episode description, and it's also going to be linked at law.unh.edu/podcast.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

Leah we've talked in the past about digital privacy and children multiple times, especially around your book, Sharenthood. What is the lens you and Monica were looking at the impact of COVID-19 and schooling?

Professor Leah Plunkett:

Monica and I we're looking at this through the lens of a long standing collaboration that the two of us have had going back about half a dozen years at this point. Our collaboration has been bi-coastal for a lot of it. I'm in East coast, she's on the West coast. And it has been cross-disciplinary. I am grounded in legal education and I will let Monica talk a little bit about her background.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

We started bringing this multidisciplinary lens to cross cutting issues of student privacy, equity and digital literacy back when we were teaming up through the Berkman Klein Center and Data & Society, and every week or every couple of weeks, we would do a close reading of breaking news in those three areas; student privacy, equity, and digital literacy. And we would just start throwing stuff that we saw that was jumping out at us into a Google doc, and then we would put it through a little bit of a process. And I think Monica, I'll turn it over to you to talk about the academic and professional lens that you have always brought to our collaboration, as well as what happened after we put things in a Google doc.

Dr. Monica Bulger:

Thank you Leah. To explain, my background is in education and I also studied child rights and youth and media. What we would do together ... we overlapped so well in many of our interests. Leah brought the legal, I brought the education, and so oftentimes when we would be selecting articles, we would have a conversation about the legal implications and the education learning/teaching implications, which was just incredible to have that type of expertise available when I was trying to make sense of it at least.

Dr. Monica Bulger:

In terms of our process, this is really interesting because we actually spoke with experts at different conferences and in our group at Berkman about how confusing the media was becoming, how confusing news articles were becoming and how much more effort it was taking for sense making. And so our process is that we identified people we trust, experts we trust, we identified topics of interests and we identified publications we trust, and we also used each other as well as colleagues at our respective institutions to vet information. That was our process and that's continued to be our process, and so a lot of discussion goes into the pieces we choose.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

That's exactly right. For this medium post that we did a couple of weeks ago on these three topics of student privacy, equity and digital literacy in the current pandemic moment, we brought that same process of taking things that we were reading, that colleagues and other trusted experts were reading, we shared them with each other. We read through them. We cross-checked anything that we didn't quite understand, or we thought might not be completely lining up because we think that kind of rigor in peeling back layers of fact is so important. And then we focused in on the general trends we were seeing, but also we made sure to identify items that were of particular value. And by value I mean to the new unexpected things that are happening in, oh my goodness, just a moment of unprecedented crisis and transformation.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

Yeah. I mean the first pillar is something that's kind of more on the obvious side of things for parents and people, technologists especially too, is digital privacy. What sort of impact or warning flags basically come up when you've taught COVID-19, homeschooling and parents having to pick up this?

Dr. Monica Bulger:

I think a major difference is that the classrooms have moved to the bedrooms. And this really aligns with Leah's work on Sharenthood because suddenly now in the background of the Zoom chats, you've got half-dressed siblings running around with parents trying to keep them out of the call. You have, like in my case on this podcast, probably dogs barking. You have the realities. You can see people's rooms and there's a lot there that families might not have planned to share, and so this raises serious concerns about privacy. Also, I know that we'll be talking about equity, but how these spaces look might be impacting how children had planned to present their identity versus how their identity ends up being presented. And Leah, I know that you've done so much work in this area. You have brilliant insights to add.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

I think that what this has done is really brought into hyper-focus a lot of vulnerabilities, but also opportunities that were already there. So by vulnerability, certainly I mean big gaps in what is covered by privacy law at the state and federal level, as well as vulnerabilities in that, look I am an expert in digital privacy law and family life and if you were to ask me on the record, which I guess this is so I'm going to ask myself on the record, have I let my children who are nine and five use apps or go on websites during the work from home, teach from home, do all the things from home boom that's we're in go on apps or websites that I have not vetted to my usual extent, absolutely. I think that I would be shocked if there was another parent answering this question, honestly, who would not say the same thing.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

We are seeing just even under normal circumstances, it is next to impossible for parents or teachers or grandparents or other trusted adults to ever really understand what information is being collected about their children and their families when they use a digital product. And now more than ever, when there are so many layers of need and stress and sort of immediacy. So it's, "Okay fine, just use this app. I have to finish my Zoom meeting." I actually was in a Zoom meeting with colleagues a week or so ago when I wasn't getting to my son quickly enough, and he walked in, took my cell phone, which does have facial recognition enabled, I know that's a no-no, but it does, he waved the phone in front of my face to unlock my phone and then bought an Instacart order that he thought I was taking too long to buy.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

I'm not making any of this up. I think our podcast [inaudible 00:07:29].

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

I think I was on that call.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

I was about to say I think our podcaster was on that call. Yeah.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

Because I was so glued to the screen, he just went like that, pressed a few buttons walked out and all of a sudden I had a ton of bubble gum. That was actually more of a parental privacy invasion by my child using my biometric information to unlock one of my private devices. I share it with a smile and with a laugh because he just bought bubble gum, but the current moment does raise these vulnerabilities with respect to the law, with respect to what tech companies are collecting. It also really brings to the forefront or to the face-front, pun intended, vulnerabilities and the actual physical security of our devices. We don't think usually a meeting security from other family members or in our intimate spaces, but actually you have a lot of right now both work information and also kid's educational information that is just on a variety of devices that are kind of moving all around.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

In terms of opportunities, because I always like to look on the bright side as well, this is a moment where because parents are looking at digital technologies with a whole new set of obligations on them, that parents are seeing probably more than before, just how complicated the privacy dimensions, not to mention just the underlying user experience dimensions are to these technologies.

Dr. Monica Bulger:

I think this is also bringing to the floor that the way laws are written, the education privacy laws, they're designed to protect the data, not the child's wellbeing. And so suddenly parents are realizing that a lot of the things they thought were protected for their child in terms of privacy aren't. I think as you so aptly described, Leah, that also in this moment, they're realizing how overwhelming the privacy terms of service and terms and conditions are, and that it's really impossible to understand them all, to read them all, but also that they do not provide the types of protections for children especially, but users in general, that they might have been assuming

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

That's the digital privacy side of things. Another angle on this is equity. Learning from home comes with many difficulties when it comes to access, environment, different things like that. What did your research show?

Professor Leah Plunkett:

One of the major equity concerns that we both very much had has to do with the long standing digital divide in terms of which families and children have access to internet, have access to devices on which they can use that internet to access the educational and other resources that they need. What we're seeing, and as we documented more detail in the medium post, is that these digital inequities run extremely deep. There are rural divides and disparities. There are disparities by race, socioeconomic, status, neighborhoods, and that we really are running an unprecedented risk of leaving kids and families so far behind because of the way that we now need technologies to get even baseline education.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

I do think, and again, this is my always try to look at the upside as well, I do think that we are seeing some creative problem solving in a more small scale level. For instance, we're seeing schools, and this school that AJ and I work at, UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law has done this, we put a hotspot for wireless access for our law students in our parking lot. And so any of our law students could safely and still can socially distance drive up and get wireless. We're seeing innovations like that popping up. But those kinds of small scale innovations while they're super important for addressing micro problems, do not address the major deficits we have in our digital infrastructure and access nationwide.

Dr. Monica Bulger:

I think that this moment is also showing that we cannot consider technology in isolation. This is such an intense moment because families are working from home, families are unemployed. We know that ... I think it's ... is it 40% of those making less than 40,000 have lost their jobs? It just seems like too high of a figure, but I feel like I read that. So we're seeing this intensity of children trying to learn. Oftentimes families are sharing a laptop, so it's like a laptop share where kids have a time and then the mother's using it, and then the father's using it if they still have work. We're seeing also an acceleration in trying to bridge that digital divide with schools handing out laptops.

Dr. Monica Bulger:

Also as Leah, you mentioned, schools providing hotspots. I love the story of school buses being used as hotspots to provide wifi in different neighborhoods. We're also seeing an increase in the learning gaps that for some children, they weren't able to do any homework or any score during this time. There's been such interesting coverage too about how siblings are helping other siblings, which is heartening, but also in some cases one sibling is sacrificing their own learning to support that of the others.

Dr. Monica Bulger:

So there's as you said Leah, there's the positives that this might be accelerating awareness of these gaps, and also getting more access and more devices into children's hands provided by local governments and schools. But there's also a lot to be concerned about that I'm grateful is being highlighted.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

Digital literacy of parents, and in many circumstances grandparents or their family members, especially around COVID-19 where parents are continuing to work, they're having to come up with new childcare solutions on the fly is very common, is another hurdle that was mentioned in your article. Once again, what is some of your research shown on that side of things?

Dr. Monica Bulger:

This is where I think it's very important to go back to what we were talking about in terms of how to process information about the current crisis. We have a pandemic, we have protests, we have joblessness, climate change, all of these issues have so many competing news articles or pieces that look like news articles. And so we're finding that a great vulnerability is actually in older adults, grandparents sharing this information with teens and youth. Right now Leah's nodding very, very rigorously because this has turned into a consistent finding.

Dr. Monica Bulger:

I interviewed on my 30,000 Hours podcast, Cathryn Anila in Kuala Lumpur, who spoke about her own experience and offered recommendations for teens to engage in healthy media practices while coping with lockdown, because what's happening is people are only able to connect with each other via social media apps and things like that. And so they're even more vulnerable to bad actors who know that these kids are online more frequently, and so considering how to better safeguard and to have more conversations with your parents about this, parents having more conversations with their kids. These are very critical issues and trends we've seen emerging.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

I completely agree with all of that. One other dimension that has been on my mind is the ways in which we are sort of seeing some times the importation of workplace norms of digital practice into the home while we're also seeing the importation of home norms into the workplace. So as AJ can attest, I don't think I have done a meeting since March where I haven't had one or more of my child co-workers like bouncing next to me. I do have a rule that when I'm in the guestroom and the door is closed, any children who come in here have to be dressed. They don't always listen to me, but I'm trying to avoid the really bad stuff.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

It's also true that I have wound up having more conversations that I think of as more kind of workplace conversations, at least with my nine year old. A concrete example; he asked me the other day, he looked at my computer and he said, "What do you use teams for? What do you use Zoom for? And when do you use a Google meet?" because he saw that I have all these different things. I actually broke down for him what the different types of work I do on each of these platforms are and who I'm collaborating with and why I might be picking one thing over another.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

I do think again, that there can be these moments of sort of cross-pollination almost of different types of digital literacies that we might just think of as everyday behavior. So I'm at work, it makes sense to use Zoom because I'm talking to someone over on our main campus in Durham, that I don't even really think of that as a form of digital literacy, but it actually kind of is knowing which tool to use and what the appropriate etiquette is. And then I'm at home, and I am saying to one of my kids, "Okay you can use this device to call grandma and grandpa." Well that is actually also kind of a digital literacy or digital citizenship habit of what I am using to engage in what kind of activity and what kind of context.

Professor Leah Plunkett:

So I just feel like there is a lot of learning on the fly going on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it's hilarious. Like when AJ's bird joins our meetings. I was like [inaudible 00:17:19] the birds on the shoulder. And then sometimes it doesn't work so well. There's something funny about the kid in the animal Zoom-bombing. There is of course, nothing funny about the Zoom-bombing that happened in a lot of classrooms as this was getting started.

Dr. Monica Bulger:

You know what Leah, I love that framing about the overlap, because I'm seeing this in really cute ways. I was on a Zoom call yesterday where a colleague had his one year old on his shoulders and bouncing around while he was ... That was just this really sweet moment. Everybody on the call was making little faces at the baby, so it was just really precious.

Dr. Monica Bulger:

In the first weeks of this, I also participated in a Zoom funeral and that was really interesting because it was multi-generational. It was a Filipino funeral, so it lasted nine nights in this case. We had all the different ages. It was just really amazing to watch the younger kids explaining via Zoom because they couldn't be there in person together to their grandparents and their older aunties, how to manage the Zoom call and whispering things like, "Put yourself on mute." Or, "Oh, this is showing in the background. You don't want to show this in the background." Or, "Put his picture in the background so everybody can see it." All of this coordination and it was such a poignant, powerful moment, something you would never expect to have to think of.

Dr. Monica Bulger:

But then there's also been the positives where we're connecting with family members who need a break from teaching their kids, so we get on and teach them how to make bread or more fun making cocktails with friends in other countries and things like that.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

This whole COVID-19 thing came entirely quickly. I mean, we had a couple of weeks and we went, "Okay, just in case we're going to prep. We're going to get ready." And then it was like, "Oh no, we're going live with this now. We're not going to the office. Get ready to start the hybrid teaching." We were extremely fortunate with our hybrid program that we kind of had the infrastructure ready and we were basically ready to go when it came to that, but K through 12 schools weren't ready. I mean, the technology wasn't there.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

My mom is an Ed Tech with a school up in Maine. I had to go in and teach her how to use Zoom, and go, "Okay, this is how you're going to support people." It's been a huge game changer across the board. We're hopefully, knock on wood, going to be in better shape when the fall comes around if there's last minute closures, say there's second rounds of outbreaks, things like that, we should be ready.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

Where do you both think teachers, technologists, families should look to be ready for that to happen?

Dr. Monica Bulger:

I think that there are a lot of high quality resources available and emerging. UNICEF is putting together some really useful rapid response. Quite a few of the colleges are too. Leah, maybe that's something we put together in one of our newsletters because I think-

Professor Leah Plunkett:

I was thinking that. I was thinking that, because I am seeing and I'm tracking this both for my role at UNH as an Associate Dean, and we're of course, working across the university and the whole university system here in New Hampshire to do our reopening contingency planning, but I'm also tracking it in terms of envisioning likely fall where I have my children home a lot more. So Monica, I think that we shout out to a few of them in the medium post, and I think that's probably our next medium post is now that there's sort of a critical mass of different resources around best practices and different platforms, let's go through and take a look and break them down a little bit. And AJ that can be our next discussion with you.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

Before we close up the episodes, Leah where can people learn more about your book?

Professor Leah Plunkett:

My book, Sharenthood: Why We Should Think before We Talk about Our Kids Online, which is published by MIT Press in the fall 2019, folks can go to leahplunkett.com and learn a little more and download a free chapter.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

Monica where can people learn more about your podcast?

Dr. Monica Bulger:

They can go to 30,000hours.com. We're actually also on iTunes, Spotify and Google Play, the 30,000 Hours podcast.

A. J. Kierstead (Host):

Thanks for listening to the Legal Impact presented by UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law. To help spread word about the show, please be sure to subscribe and comment on your favorite podcast platform, including Apple podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify