Privacy Concerns Don’t Curb Use of Classroom Apps
Laptops, tablets and smartphones each year play a more prominent role in schools, despite lingering concerns that private companies and government agencies are using such devices to collect massive amounts of data that can be used to profile students.
While chalkboards and paper flashcards were once mainstays for teachers in kindergarten through high school, education software has quickly changed the way children learn. Smartphone-carrying kids download mobile apps featuring learning assistants or project programs that can interact with a white board screen at the front of a classroom. At least half of kindergarten through high school teachers use a mobile app, website or digital game to teach in their classrooms, according to a report from the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt education firm.
But that convenience comes with a risk. Education apps and programs track students’ â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹every response, developing profiles based on the answers they got right and the subjects with which they’re uncomfortable. Activists say this fact is not as widely known as it should be, and they want more accountability for the makers of education software, â€‹given that many apps for the general public sell data to third-party “data brokers” for unspecified uses.
“Any online app that a teacher signs up for a kid will collect their personal information, and depending on the state you live in that data can be shared from one company to another in an endless chain,” says Rachael Stickland, co-chairwoman of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy. “We don’t know how it’s being used, but the enforcement and transparency mechanisms of these apps are insufficient.”
A survey published in May by The Learning Curve education firm showed 79 percent of parents wereconcerned with the privacy and security of their child’s data, while 76 percent expressed worry about how student information is collected and shared. Fear about student data also stems from the more than 533â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹â€‹ data breaches â€‹that have exposed records collected by businesses, government agencies and other institutions so far this year, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.â€‹
Stickland suggests the easy access to sellable student data is in part driving growth of the education software industry, which is worth an estimated $8.38 billion in the U.S., according to the Software & Information Industry Association and the Education Technology Industry Network.
The personal information of students is meant to be used only for educational purposes, but such private data has been collected and passed around outside schools much more broadly.
Parents in recent years sued the College Board for selling marketing firms personal information collected from standardized tests like the ACT or SAT. Colleges, summer camps and test-prep firms have also bought student-behavior profiles gleaned from tests conducted by the National Research Center for College & University Admissions.
Data analytics company InBloom originally compiled information to help teachers or software customize assignments based on students’ needs; they even had $100 million in funding from donors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But InBloom shut down last year after parents in several states expressed concern that information collected on kids as young as 5 years old could be sold to marketers or stolen by hackers.
Activist groups like the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy have also criticized high schools in Georgia and California for sharing student test and survey information with military recruiters since 2001 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Schools sometimes even require students to allow snooping of their online activities in order to use on-campus â€‹Internet and school-owned hardware – a requirement parents and students are sometimes unaware of.â€‹ Nathan Ringo, a students at â€‹â€‹Wayzata High School in Minnesota, turned down a school-owned iPad when â€‹â€‹he realized it came loaded with surveillance software.
School officials installed censorware on the iPads in order to make sure their property was not used inappropriately, Ringo tells U.S. News, adding that the contract for using the equipment did not spell out what information was being collected or monitored. The school contract for using the Apple device required him to agree to an “integrity check” that ran every 24 hours, he says.
“A lot of students, even the ones who realize how easily and widely their privacy can be violated, would rather accept that and just keep their school-issued device off at home than to go to the trouble of trying to register their personal device with the school’s bring-your-own-device program,” he says.
As parental concern mounts, tech companies are eager to prove that they have the best interests of students at heart. Apple is among the companies that has signed a White House-backed student privacy pledge, agreeing not to sell student data or use it to target advertising.
“We’re continuously improving our practices to further protect students’ privacy,” an Apple spokesman tells U.S. News. “We don’t sell student information, never share it with third parties without consent and believe that both students and their parents should be knowledgable about the collection and use of student data.”
Student performance tracking app ClassDojo, which the company says is used by kindergarten through high school teachers in half of U.S. schools, â€‹has also signed the privacy pledge. A spokeswoman says the company does not sell student information to third parties or store data itself.
“Nothing follows children from year to year,” she says of the app, which only requires a child’s name to create a profile on their class performance. “Parents and kids can save their feedback points if they want, but if they don’t, we delete those points after 12 months.”
Quizlet, which makes study-aid apps, has not yet signed the student privacy pledge. CEO Dave Margulius tells U.S. News his company is analyzing that pledge and legislation passed in states like Delaware to determine that they are “thorough.” Quizlet hosts ads on its site, but it requires parental consent before signing up children under the age of 13, as required by the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, Margulius says.
“We are not in the business of gathering and selling data,” he says, explaining that only anonymous data passes through vendors like security firms that help protect the Web service’s information.
The student privacy pledge has not satisfied â€‹watchdogs, who want it to require more transparency on software education practices and enforcement to punish companies that violate the agreement.
“The commitments outlined in the Student Privacy Pledge are vague and serve only as a framework of good behavior,” says Leonie Haimson, founder of the New York City Public School Parents blog and an advocate for better classroom conditions. “The only enforcement mechanism is the [Federal Trade Commission’s] ability to fine companies for unfair and deceptive practices.”
Lawmakers, including Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also want to enact more protections rather than wait for a data breach or a marketing firm to expose student information.
“Parents need tools now as school districts increasingly put electronic student data in the hands of third parties”.
Markey is among the lawmakers who have introduced bills aiming to strengthen cybersecurity and privacy protections for student data. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., have also introduced a bill that would limit allowable-disclosure uses to student-related issues like post-secondary education or employment opportunities, with parental consent.
“We’re being proactive about this situation by introducing the bill because companies are definitely collecting and storing huge amounts of student data, mostly through apps used in classrooms,” a staffer for Blumenthal says.
The congressional proposals are a step forward, Stickland says, but she and other privacy advocates will push for stricter provisions to ensure parents are “fully aware and involved in the decision-making” about storage, use and sharing of student data.
“Security protections must be strong if a child’s safety and future chances of success are not to be undermined,” Stickland says.