Berkman Initiative Explores Privacy Issues as Educational Institutions Move to the Cloud

By TAP Guest Blogger

Posted on June 6, 2013


In April 2013, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society in collaboration with Microsoft convened an exploratory workshop on “Student Privacy in the Cloud Computing Ecosystem,” which marked the launch of a broader research initiative on this topic. The Berkman student privacy project seeks to surface, identify, and evaluate central privacy issues and opportunities that may emerge when educational institutions consider moving to "the cloud" (To learn more about this initiative, please visit the Student Privacy Initiative page.). “The cloud” refers to computer-related services and software provided over the Internet and other networks.

The initial workshop aimed to begin to map the current landscape and connect the often-siloed perspectives of educational institutions, students, parents, and administrators as well as cloud service providers and policy makers. To this end, the event brought together leading experts from government, educational institutions, academia, and business to take stock and discuss core issues as well as current practices related to the handling of student information in the cloud.

Based on ongoing research and participants’ inputs from the workshop, the Berkman Center distilled a number of high-level observations that may be particularly critical in informing and catalyzing both future research and action. Some of the key points include the following:

  • Expanding educational and knowledge sharing efforts will be integral to engage parents, students, and teachers alongside representatives from a variety of disciplines. These diverse stakeholders may have vastly different baseline knowledge of relevant issues—from cloud computing to privacy concerns to regulatory considerations—and addressing these differences may require a multi-pronged approach. In particular, it will be important to share up-to-date information about rapidly developing educational technologies so that potential users can better understand what data vendors might access and collect as well as what the vendor might do with this data.
  • Developing a shared vocabulary and understanding of privacy and technological terms will be central to future research, outreach, policy, and educational efforts. Taxonomies and guides can help to cultivate a shared language and bolster communication and collaboration across educational, commercial, and regulatory settings.
  • Good practices and draft standards, especially around contractual practices and terms of service, represent a fruitful area for attention. Stakeholders should enter this space in close communication with vendors and industry representatives.
  • Ongoing normative analysis and discussion will be critical in grappling with the many dimensions of the topic and considering how core technologies, opportunities, and behaviors may evolve. In particular, the rapid emergence of data analytics technologies raise important questions about how existing legal frameworks should be interpreted or evolve. This dialogue should be grounded in real-world examples and data, and address open questions such as whether and how cloud technologies support broader educational values and if so, what specific value trade-offs may be involved.


Expanding on this brief summary of key points, the Student Privacy Working Roadmap offers many more concrete details regarding research, policymaking, outreach, and engagement around student privacy and cloud computing.

By considering norms and values alongside the opportunities for research, policymaking, outreach, and engagement around student privacy and cloud computing in the working road map, the Berkman Center looks forward to continuing the dialogue around this timely and important topic as part of its evolving privacy research agenda.

This post was written by Alicia Solow-Niederman, project manager with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.