Solving the Data Privacy Crisis in K-12 Schools with Robert Iskander, CEO of GG4L

“A typical school district shares their data with about 1000 vendors.”

– Robert Iskander

One wrong click on a malicious link, and your kid’s data can be in the hands of some of the smartest cyberattackers in the world! This week on the On Work and Revolution podcast, I’m joined by Robert Iskander, the CEO of Global Grid for Learning (GG4L) who breaks down the data privacy challenges that are rampant in schools across the country.  Robert and the team at GG4L are working relentlessly to protect student data while seamlessly allowing vendor apps to function.

The main themes that emerged in this conversation are:

  • Challenges and concerns as a parent about the number of platforms schools use and the potential for data misuse.
  • How GG4L’s School Passport platform helps schools manage and govern data sharing with vendors.
  • The lack of awareness parents and teachers have surrounding data privacy and the risk associated with a data breach.
  • The challenges of traditional EdTech procurement and how GG4L’s “try before you buy” model disrupts the process.
  • How GG4L’s approach can help mitigate data privacy risks associated with generative AI tools.
  • Robert shares his vision for GG4L’s growth and impact over the next three years, emphasizing the goal of protecting student data in 100,000 schools.
  • Robert discusses GG4L’s impact initiatives focused on student safety and school-to-career pathways, highlighting partnerships with Coursera and Google.

Give this conversation a listen, and don’t hesitate to Contact Us if you have any
questions, comments, or feedback. 

About our guest, Robert Iskander:

A serial entrepreneur and a corporate leader with many years of experience in Information Technology, strategic planning and innovation, Robert is a global business transformation leader passionate about leveraging technology to improve the quality of life for all, with a special focus on K-12 education. Nominated as one of the Top 100 EdTech Influencers in 2017 by EdTech Magazine.

Currently Robert is Founder, Chairman and CEO of GG4L (Global Grid for Learning, PBC) a social impact company focusing on K-12 education.

Mr. Iskander’s leadership experience includes M&A, strategic business planning, operations, technology infrastructure, product roadmaps, B2B business development, ecosystems, acquisitions, synergy modeling, rollups, due-diligence, global markets, investments and cultural transformation.

Prior to GG4L, Robert was Executive Vice President & General Manager at West Corporation (2014-2017) acquired by Apollo Global. He helped West execute an aggressive roll-up strategy by acquiring 3 companies, within 3 years, under SchoolMessenger, creating one of the largest and most profitable K-12 EdTech companies in North America, serving over 63,000 schools and 100 million end-users (parents, students and teachers combined).

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Open for Full Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Debbie Goodman: Welcome to On Work and Revolution, where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of work and edtech. I’m your host, Debbie Goodman. I’m CEO of Jack Hammer Global, a global group of executive search and leadership coaching companies. I’m also an advisor to venture backed edtech founders. And for those of you in edtech who are hiring, we have launched a fractional leaders offering in addition to our full time executive search. I’ll put the link in the show notes. My main mission with all of my work is to help companies and leaders to create amazing workplaces where people and ideas flourish. And today it’s really great to have Robert Iskander as my guest. So Robert is founder, chairman, and CEO of GG4L, which stands for Global Grid for Learning, a social impact company focusing on K12 education.

If you haven’t heard about GG4L, don’t worry. We’re going to be doing a deep dive in a bit. Prior to this, Robert was EVP at West Corporation. He helped West execute a pretty aggressive rollup strategy. They acquired three companies within three years. Under School Messenger, which is a brand I’m sure you’ll know which became one of the largest, most profitable K12 edtech companies in North America, serving over 63 000 schools, 100 million end users. That’s a lot. And then, Robert has had tremendous success as a serial entrepreneur in the K12 space. No surprise. He’s been nominated as one of the top 100 edtech influencers by EdTech Magazine. And today we’re going to chat to Robert about the massive challenge around data privacy in schools and how Global Grid for Learning is solving this problem. Welcome, Robert.

[00:01:54] Robert Iskander: Thank you. Thank you. It is great to be here.

[00:01:56] Debbie Goodman: Okay, let’s get straight into it. Data privacy is a massive problem just in general in the world, but particularly in schools right now and with generative AI, it’s only getting worse. I just want to unpack the problem because it’s not something that I realized was quite as severe as it actually is. So take listeners who might not be aware of how big an issue it is through the process of what happens when a learner logs on or subscribes to one of the many tech platforms that they’re using these days.

[00:02:32] Robert Iskander: So typically, a student or teacher or parent logs into a web based application, which is hosted somewhere in the cloud by third party vendor. And for that third party vendor to create an account for each one of the end users that the schools are bringing in, or that may have subscribed directly with them as consumers, you have both models B2B or B2C, in which case do you still have to provide your full name, your email address, sometimes your other physical addresses, depending if that vendor is sending you stuff to your home. And in many cases, some other unique identifiers that some vendors collect, like in some cases, credit cards, social security numbers, healthcare numbers, things like that, depending on what the vendor does, right? That could be anywhere from administrative tools for the schools to an academic tool online, you know, it could be anywhere. And the problem and the need for that data is there. I mean, the vendors are not doing it just to steal your data. No, that’s not the case. They need it to create accounts for you. So it’s an ethical need. However, in many cases, we have the problem of what we call the data sprawl. So when the school, a typical school district shares their data with about 1000 vendors, you know, because they have to use 1000 or more third party applications. Each one of them collects that what we call PII Data, personally identifiable information. PII – I’m going to use that word a lot, and that PII Gets all over the Internet through that what we call data sprawl. And what happens is that, you know, it’s a necessary evil to be able to authenticate yourself.

Sometimes you use your email address, and sometimes you have to give them your full name for personalizing the application. Sometimes you have to give them your phone number so that they could send you SMS messages or voice messages. All of that happens, and it’s all ethical. However, the problem is that these vendors, like anybody else on the internet, including recently AT& T, they are subject to cyber attacks. And when cyber attacks happen, all of that data gets shared in the dark web. And when it gets shared in the dark web now, there’s too much information about me as an individual, typically student underage or parent of a student, whereby, you know, that data now is out there. And there’s identity theft. There’s all kinds of you know, basically ramifications for having that data now exposed in the dark web. And the school districts really don’t know how to control that problem. Usually they don’t have a huge IT staff, like a big enterprise, and they’re serving a huge audience of students. And so they do the minimum necessary to be able to get along. And there’s no solution out there for that problem. And so up till now.

[00:05:18] Debbie Goodman: Okay. Well, that’s a really good lay of the land to start with. I had, I’ve got two kids at school. They’re at high school and Their access to the various subscriptions and different platforms. I’m not even aware these days of how many different platforms and tech tools they’re using because they, you know, they don’t have to go get my authority in order to do that. And my fear is not just like as a parent, the dark web, it’s just in general, access to my information and their information that anyone out there has access to these days. So, it’s a huge issue that you’ve made me even more worried about now that I know how things are actually unfolding. All right, let’s talk a bit about how GG4L is coming to the rescue and what your technology does in order to solve the problem?

[00:06:14] Robert Iskander: So when I started GG4L, I wanted to create an infrastructure for schools to be able to share and govern the sharing of their data with their whole ecosystem of third party vendors. We created a platform called School Passport, and School Passport takes the data once from the school on a daily basis coming in from their student information system, from their learning management system, from multiple data sources, normalizes that data and shares it through an API through to their third party vendors, so the third party vendors come and be able to collect it. This helps automating the data exchange and making sure it’s governed. You know exactly which vendor took which data at what time. So it has a very, very good set of attributes. But over the years, I realized why are we sharing all of this PII data? Let’s start anonymizing that. So we came up with something called Privacy Shield, and if a district turns it on, it would basically anonymize all your PII data as a district or a school before it gets shared with the vendor. Now the problem is the vendors have to be able to leverage that data still and not be blocked from doing things they normally do with some of that PII data.

Again, ethical things and like, maybe like communicating with the students, sending them an email address email message, or SMS as an example of personalizing your product. So we actually created tools for the vendors. to be able to leverage that data. And we created a new set of standards with the standards organizations.

There’s something called a One Roster, which is a standard. Now, most of vendors used to consume the format of the data coming out of the school, but we created Privacy One Roster and Privacy One Roster defines what PII data looks like and allows you to anonymize it in a way that the vendors could basically still leverage. So you can still log into the product without sharing the data. You can still get reports on usage analytics. You can still personalize the product by using the 1st name last initial, but not the full name. And things like that allows the districts, prevent the districts from sharing PII data, yet allows the vendors to function as normal without changing their code. And so this has been something new that we launched about a year ago, and it’s been progressing quite nicely.

[00:08:29] Debbie Goodman: Wow. Okay. I mean this sounds like an absolute no brainer. All the functionality without the exposure to data and the ability to protect the privacy of the students and they get their families, I guess, because it’s not just student information. It’s parents, et cetera, too. How come parents don’t know about this?

[00:08:51] Robert Iskander: Well, parents don’t get involved as much with technology when it comes to what the schools do with technology. Well, obviously they get a device sent home with their children and they, you know, they help them log into that device. But even parents are not as well educated as you think about the risks of sharing your PII data and that’s why, you know, when you like to turn on a cybersecurity insurance policy in the company, the first thing they do is they teach you all the risks of cybersecurity and how to protect your privacy and all of that. Parents sometimes don’t get that kind of basic education to learn that how to protect my data and my privacy. And so it’s still a new world. And we’re educating everybody. We’re actually trying to help educate parents, educate teachers, mainly teachers, because teachers get to be like the ones who are exposed the most to vendors coming directly to them. And in some cases, teachers are the ones who share those data with the vendors without even the knowledge nor consent of their IT.

[00:09:47] Debbie Goodman: Right. So I guess there must be tons of these leakage points where maybe at the district level they’re going, okay, well, this is a problem. We’ve got to deal with it. Let’s, this is a great idea. This is an incredible solution. But then there are all these other little leakage points where teachers unintentionally, I mean, they’re just wanting to do the best they can for yeah, exactly. I mean, everybody’s just trying to get the job done here, right? The most efficient way possible. In the meantime, the data is getting out there. Okay. So, and another bit that you were sharing with me is the way in which it just, GG4L is really disrupting the procurement model itself. So, help me understand a little bit more about that.

[00:10:28] Robert Iskander: Yeah. So typically when school districts go out shopping for products like these SAS products that we’re talking about, they have a very lengthy procurement process, you know, called a request for proposal RFPs. And so they collect for six months, all the requirements for this one product. All the features they want, and it takes a long time to document all these features and issue an RFP. So it’s a lot of work on the school districts to do that, but they have to do that as a public agency to make sure they have competitive bidding practices. And so first they put in the requirements that takes six months, and then they issue the RFP, and that takes another three months until all the vendors respond. And then eventually they pick one vendor that is the finalist that probably was the lowest priced product and then start turning it on. It takes another one or two months to turn it on, you know, to get the data into that vendor and by the end of the year, so it’s 12 months now, finally they have the product turned on and only to realize it doesn’t do what they really hope to do. And so it’s a waste of time and a waste of money. They just spent it on because when you sign up a vendor, usually you commit to five years. Contracts. So now you’re paying for the next five years for product that you really don’t need anymore. So what we’re trying to say here is that now that we have the ability to turn on a product without sharing any PII data. Why not try the product with one click? You turn it on for the whole district or the whole school. And we guarantee you that none of your PII data will be shared with that vendor. So you don’t have to audit that vendor or do like back background checks on them because we are not going to share their data, your data with them.

But then we turn it on for you, use it for free for 30 days. If you really like it, then go ahead and buy it. So try before you buy. SAS products was never done before. Why? Because there’s a lot of risk by deploying your SAS products. So we eliminated that risk by creating what we call that zero trust data exchange platform, but we also created this on demand provisioning of a new solution by clicking one button.

So the district IT could just turn it on and say, I want to try it on with these schools and these classrooms in these schools. And then give heads up to those teachers that you’re going to be trying this new tool. Please fill out a survey at the end. And when that happens, basically they got the product for free immediately. They like it. Then they can make a decision whether they want to buy it or not at that stage. And we would guarantee them that. Obviously, the best pricing by going in and leveraging other preexisting contracts that were already procured. There’s something called the piggyback clause, where it guarantees you the best price based on the lowest price that was bid in the public procurement for that product. So you’re still going to get the best price

[00:13:05] Debbie Goodman: Man, this is just amazing. 

[00:13:08] Robert Iskander: It saves everybody time and money, both sides. It saves vendors and it saves schools a lot.

[00:13:13] Debbie Goodman: Yeah. I mean, what I’m hearing right now in just edtech land is just the incredibly long sales cycle, particularly with K12 because of all the changes, the ESSA funding issue, the what tools should we use because of AI or not AI policy. And so it’s super frustrating for vendors with products or services that they’re looking at another year and a half before they can even get a single dollar in the bank.

[00:13:40] Robert Iskander: Now that you mentioned AI, do you mind if I just say something about AI.

[00:13:43] Debbie Goodman: Please go ahead. Yeah.

[00:13:45] Robert Iskander: So in the world of generative AI, you’ve got the problem of your data being sponged by the generative AI engine. And if it’s a public generative AI engine, like chat GPT, for example, that data is going into an open repository of data that any other, you know, user gets to see that data unintentionally. So the schools are having some issues with this, and they’re trying to set up guardrails for how you can and cannot use AI based technologies. So by us, anonymizing the PII data. We’re actually preventing that PII data to leak through any application that uses AI In the back end and so this is another solution for enabling guardrails for the leverage of AI technology in school.

[00:14:35] Debbie Goodman: Right. I mean, all of this sounds like an absolute no brainer for any participant in this ecosystem of procuring vendor products to say, let’s just use the solution. I know it’s still early days for you because it hasn’t been going for years and years and there are other products out there. You know, competitors in the market, Clever, ClassLink. But you’ve shared with me that there’s some other pretty unique features that puts you ahead. What’s the biggest challenge for growth? Because as you’re describing this to me, if I was sitting at the table at the district, I’d be going, yeah, sure. Just where do I sign? So how things going with growth and what’s the biggest challenges for you?

[00:15:17] Robert Iskander: The biggest challenge is getting the word out to the school leaders and to the edtech vendor leadership as well, that there is a better way to do things. And change management is always takes time, right? To make a change happen. This is a big change, and it’s a change of habits, change of software, change of processes, and, and people need to get educated first. You know, and this is helping, thank you for this interview because we’re helping spread the knowledge, To a lot of people who would listen to this and say, Oh, my God, I didn’t even know that that’s possible. So just getting the word out is part of that challenge, right? And the next thing is really to dare to try it out, you know, and districts that have some very large school districts. I can’t name them because we’re under non-disclosure agreements, but these large districts are doing pilots right now with this and forcing their vendors to come in and only consume anonymized data. And I would say, give it time, give it a year or two. This will continue to grow organically. Now, what is the chance for us as a company is to handle all of that, right? We’re still a young growing company. Resources are limited. Capital is limited. All of those you know, provide challenges. Eventually a big company that is in this space will definitely come in and say, you know, we want to help you accelerate this and that will help out as well.

[00:16:36] Debbie Goodman: Okay. So you’re thinking like a strategic partner is likely to come along and partner with you in order to really drive that growth and distribution.

[00:16:46] Robert Iskander: We are working with some really nice strategic partners. Like AWS is one of our strategic partners. We work with Microsoft, we work with Google. So we work with the big three in that space. But we’re also working with channel partners like CDW and many others, and we are working with some other interesting innovators in this space like Vonage, which is part of Ericsson now, they’re one of our partners for the communication tools that we use to tokenize the phone numbers. So they’re helping us. So we’re bringing in a whole ecosystem of large companies that are working together collaboratively with us to make this happen, which is we’re very fortunate to have that happen.

[00:17:24] Debbie Goodman: Okay, so I want to just dial into that sales cycle, because you’ve got a product that sounds like an absolute no brainer. This is a thing that everybody needs and it’s just now a matter of getting it, getting the word out, so to speak, in whichever way you’re planning to do that. Nevertheless, as you also said, it’s the change management and not just the technical change management of getting things done. Adoption of a new tool. It’s the mindset change of people who are used to making decisions in a certain way at a certain pace with you know with so many new challenges that they’re needing to consider at this point and so what I hear and I alluded to this earlier, is just the frustration that so many organizations, vendors edtech and workplace learning companies are experiencing right now.

But let’s just focus on K12. What is actually so frustrating, that’s a product that may seem like everybody would want it and despite that, it’s taking an excruciatingly long time for decisions to be made and for deals to get done. So how are you, are you encountering the same frustration or is it different because this is such a no brainer offering? Tell me more about that.

[00:18:40] Robert Iskander: So that’s a great question. And I want to be careful how I answer that because when I sit down with the CIO of a school district and explain to them what I do and what we have for them, they love it immediately. They want to give it a try. The problem with the fact is CIOs even may want it yet the vendors are not quite ready to do this, to plug and play with it. It was going to take them time to absorb it and adopt it. And the vice versa happens. I talked to a vendor about this. They said, wow, I love this because this would eliminate all the red tape in terms of working with schools and I really don’t need PII data. So how do we work together? But getting their team, their product team, their technology team to start really working with us, takes time.

[00:19:22] Debbie Goodman: Mm hmm.

[00:19:23] Robert Iskander: And so really battling against the, you know, the challenge is time and as we lose time, kids identities are getting stolen. Spamming is happening with their parents data. All kinds of bad things are happening. So I just wish and then I would say one other thing is that the government agencies now who help schools are starting to realize cyber security is a big risk and they’re starting to put in best practices. However, most of these best practices are legal best practices. Oh, make them sign this contract. It’s not about let’s prevent the data from leaking. Let’s do something more innovative versus a piece of paper that at the end of the day means nothing. We all have a contract with AT& T. AT& T just got breached. I just got an email yesterday from AT& T. It says your data is in the dark web. We’re going to give you one year free identity theft protection. What is that? How is that going to help you? You know, the damage has been done. So, I mean, some CEOs go to jail when the data gets stolen, but it’s not their fault. I mean, any IT infrastructure is vulnerable.

[00:20:29] Debbie Goodman: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:20:29] Robert Iskander: Every single one is vulnerable. Even the government’s IT infrastructure is vulnerable. So we just need to prevent sharing data to lower the risk versus come up with better, you know, legal agreements.

[00:20:41] Debbie Goodman: Yeah. I mean, I guess what you’re explaining is certainly the handbrake around all of the amazing technology that we’re seeing just mushroom up around us. These AI enabled or not necessarily AI enabled, but incredible tools that now exist or have existed for a while that are just not yet adopted and have not yet been given the green light because it’s humans that are ultimately making decisions and the behaviour of humans, particularly in these public environments is cautionary, which is a good thing but that means it’s slow which is very painful for all of us who are entrepreneurs and want things to move fast

[00:21:28] Robert Iskander: Nobody wants to be the first because they’re afraid of risk and especially in K12, it’s show me where else you’ve done this. So this show me is what we’re working on. So we’re working with some fairly big names in school districts. To actually show everybody how this could work, and we’re working with some big vendors like Coursera and Canva and some of these big names loving this and they’re starting to actually experiment with us in that world. So, I want to thank everyone who feels that this is an opportunity for change and has taken the first steps to give it a try because it’s going to take time. I don’t blame them. It’s anything new, you know, show me first, you know, and so we’re in the process of showing them.

[00:22:06] Debbie Goodman: Yeah, well, you know what they say about an overnight success was like the 10 years in the making. Well Hopefully it’s not gonna be 10 years.

[00:22:15] Robert Iskander: We’re giving it three years.

[00:22:17] Debbie Goodman: All right, so let’s get on to that. What are the three year hopes and dreams? What happens if we wave the magic wand and then everything just happens? What does GG4L look like in three years.

[00:22:32] Robert Iskander: Yeah. So first I want to say what the technology would look like in three years. We’re in 35 000 schools today, but doing it the pragmatic the old way, which is we give the data as is right. We don’t anonymize the data in those 35 000 schools. So my hope is that a we’re going to grow to 100 000 schools in the next three years and that growth engine is already like we would be at 50 000 by the end of this year. So that growth is happening. However, the difference will be that all of those 100 000 schools would have turned on that privacy shield and the whole ecosystem now has been able to validate that it’s wworking,and we make the world a better place. For me, that’s what I’m all about. It’s not about the money. The money is easy to make. It’s really about changing the world and protecting the kids’ safety in schools and their futures and the parents. You know, so this whole community around the schools. We hear about all kinds of safety problems and one of the big things that GG4L, when we started, we were a B Corp, Public Benefit and with the mission to improve students safety, that was one, and the other one, improve their future roadmap to career. So we’re working in both of those impact initiatives, and this, to me, is all about making an impact.

[00:23:44] Debbie Goodman: Right. Okay. I should want to end with that because what we haven’t yet mentioned is that GG4L is a public benefit corporation and there are just some amazing impact initiatives that I’d love you to just share a little bit more about because they’re super fabulous.

[00:24:01] Robert Iskander: Yeah, so like I said, the first one is student safety. And so we really are building a whole ecosystem of products from third party vendors that are all about student safety. And we created a framework for student safety in schools. It starts with physical campus security to social emotional learning to cyber security and of course data privacy protection. All of these things improve the student safety in the school. And so we’re working on building that ecosystem. We tried to promote it. We invest a lot of money in that space in that focus. And then the second one is school to career. There’s a lot of talk about career readiness right now for high school students. So when the high school student leaves high school today, we force them to either go do a blue collar job or to go to college. Those are the binary choices, but we believe that there’s a better choice, which is you could actually get certified in very specific set of technologies. There are digital technologies. So we work with Coursera as a partner and Google as a group with Google has a whole division spend a billion dollars on school to career initiatives in high schools. And so we work with all the career and tech education, CTEs around the country, big names, LA, Chicago, Denver, all these big districts come to us and we anonymize the student data inside these products and are able to get these students with six months certificates in cyber security and IT, in digital pharmaceutical, in digital marketing, digital sales, anything digital in partnership with our partners. And for example, Coursera, we’re actually helping distribute that career academy to schools with anonymization built in to protect the schools, you know, being by saying, okay, you could use this, you’re not going to be you know, doing anything wrong with data privacy, but here you go, ready to go. So, we think these initiatives are actually helping schools and is helping us with our mission.

[00:26:02] Debbie Goodman: Well, that sounds like, I mean, this really does sound like double impact. This is no small, tiny little thing on the side. Cause I do know that the organization’s like, Oh, we’ll do our tiny little impact thing and give back. The sounds super. Super impactful, very big. And alongside the main mission for GG4L, what a great opportunity for real impact.

Robert, this has been an absolute pleasure aside from learning more about the company, you’ve also provided a lot more lingo and I learned some new things around data sprawl and PII data and privacy shields and zero trust. So, thank you for adding to my vocabulary.

[00:26:44] Robert Iskander: You’re welcome. I’m sorry.

[00:26:47] Debbie Goodman: And this has been wonderful, all the best. I hope the magic wand just sprinkles its fairy dust and all the things that you’re hoping for materialize.

[00:26:55] Robert Iskander: Thank you so much, Debbie. So kind of you to do this and I appreciate the time we spent together today. Thank you so much.

[00:27:01] Debbie Goodman: Bye now.

[00:27:03] Robert Iskander: Bye bye.

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