Paula Goldman pioneers the cutting edge of technology ethics best practices as Chief Ethical and Humane Use Officer at Salesforce.


Today’s global pandemic has changed expectations for education this school year and beyond. Parents, faculty, teachers, staff, and students all count on each other to create and maintain a safe and inclusive learning environment amidst historic uncertainty. Technology can help facilitate reopening school buildings and supporting remote learning, but raises questions around privacy and the still-persistent digital divide. Getting back to learning — whether in person, remote, or a hybrid model — requires innovative approaches to manage privacy, maintain safety and ensure equal access.

While there is no universal approach to manage these challenges, the path forward to the next normal starts with dialogue. We recently convened a group of education leaders and executives to discuss how they are managing some of the hardest decisions their institutions have ever faced and what they are doing to deliver safe and equitable outcomes for the upcoming school year.


Agility is essential

Information technology has always been foundational to an organization’s ability to innovate and stay nimble. However, the need to innovate and pivot to digital education solutions has increased exponentially. Schools and universities now have to reimagine the educational experience in and out of the classroom, implement new safety procedures, and ensure students, staff, and faculty are able to get the technology resources and support they need, all while balancing state and local laws and ever-evolving public health guidance.

This means institutions are testing and learning, exploring the efficacy of different models. They have reprioritized previous projects to ensure their organizations have visibility into health and safety risks, and the consequent ability to shut down, ramp up to full capacity, and everything in between, based on changing guidance. With additional visibility into student health data comes the need for more responsible use of that information. As a result, schools and universities are constantly evaluating how to minimize data collection, consider how long the data are to be retained for, and ensure appropriate data security protections are in place.


The future of education requires solutions for the “digital divide”

Core to this challenge is the digital divide. Students need access to technology in order to benefit from virtual or even “hybrid” education. Education leaders and organizations are finding ways to offer public WiFi, loan out laptops and technology, and manage virtual computer labs and help centers to support all students. Many work in partnership with nonprofits and state and local government to make this possible.

Moreover, many students do not have communities or physical spaces they can use for their schoolwork and education. Institutions are finding ways to allow university students, who are unable to return “home” for whatever reason, to stay on campus with facilities and essential services running. This has created a need for schools to offer ways for staff and students to share their safety concerns in a transparent way. Anonymous wellness surveys help administrators gather the information they need to protect staff required to come in and effectively manage hybrid education models.


A public health emergency magnifies the trust and personal privacy discussion

COVID-19 has heightened the tension between privacy and health and safety in the everyday life of universities. Students understand the importance of sharing health information to be able to protect themselves and their community from infectious disease, but also want to be protected from it being used in undisclosed ways, especially to have access to their personal behaviors.

Organizational leaders, especially in IT and legal roles, are now in a delicate position to determine the best organizational policies to both use data in the best way to combat COVID-19 (including providing important information to public health organizations seeking data) and to protect the privacy of students, faculty, and staff. As we’ve seen with contact tracing, transparency about the use of data builds trust, which further increases the likelihood of individuals to feel comfortable disclosing necessary sensitive information. It’s essential for universities to be as clear as possible about how information is, and will be, used to further facilitate its collection and successfully manage school safety.

These insights reiterate that we as industry leaders need to continue to test, learn, and evolve our strategies to best support our stakeholders throughout the COVID-19 response. Dialogue is essential, so that we can share our insights and find the right balance between leveraging data to manage pandemic response and the protection of personal privacy and well-being to drive equitable outcomes.

For guidance on how to consider this issue, refer to our own Privacy and Ethical Use Principles Guiding our COVID-19 response and use our Key Privacy Considerations Checklist.