School Climate & Safety

Group Calls on Companies to Safeguard Student Data

By Ben Kamisar — October 22, 2013 4 min read
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Common Sense Media, an organization known for rating media and educational technology for use by children, announced a new initiative last week to encourage the educational technology industry to safeguard student data from falling into the hands of corporate interests.

In a letter sent to 11 companies that offer ed-tech products and services, Jim Steyer, the CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, called on the companies to start a conversation about the appropriate use of students’ personal information.

“Through online platforms, mobile applications, and cloud computing, schools and ed-tech providers collect massive amounts of data that contain sensitive information about students—information that needs to be kept out of the hands of noneducational, commercial interests and other third parties,” he said.

The growing use of technology in the classroom, and the data collection that comes with it, is a double-edged sword for both parents and educators, according to experts. States, districts, and schools have become increasingly reliant on the collection of large amounts of student data for a variety of purposes—not just for the monitoring of academic performance, but also to gauge attendance and overall trends across populations.

But the wave of data collection has stirred concerns among school officials, parents, and privacy advocates, who say there are far too few safeguards on what information is being gathered, who has access to it, and how it is being used. The concerns have focused not only on data gathered by schools, but also by ed-tech companies capable of culling data—which, in some cases, have been shared with advertisers or other third parties.

Stimulating Discussion

“While certainly we appreciate the great promise that [technology] holds when used wisely and its great potential for learning, we wanted to be sure that everybody was thinking about student privacy as well,” said Joni Lupovitz, the vice president of policy for the San Francisco-based Common Sense Media. “Everybody’s read press reports about things that have gone well and things that haven’t. What we want to do is start a conversation.”

Ms. Lupovitz did not elaborate on the group’s plans outside of its intention to hold a summit early next year. But she said that Common Sense Media will roll out programs in the near future for its new “School Privacy Zone” initiative, which aims to stimulate discussion about the use of student data.

Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md., applauded the effort as an important step to stimulate discussion. He said that the loudest voices in the debate have been those with extreme views, who are looking to stop either what they see as the creeping privatization of education or federally imposed data-sharing that could lead to more state surveillance.

“This is a centrist and, I think, a moderate and responsible way to address this issue that has been driven by very emotional and heated exchanges that I think have not been well-grounded in fact,” he said.

State Policy Actions

In May, Mr. Levin’s organization released a report that, among other suggestions, recommended the creation of a comprehensive and universal infrastructure to standardize how educators and private companies secure the personally identifiable information of students. While Mr. Levin said that he believed the laws protecting children’s data are clear, some school districts lack complete understanding of those policies and the ability to balance the need for privacy with the ability to use technology to provide a better service to students.

“There’s a need for a broader view and a more forward-looking view as new technologies come out,” he said. “I think having 50 states with 50 sets of rules would be crippling to our schools’ improvement efforts.”

Some states have decided to take actions to bolster or clarify existing local and federal privacy laws.

For instance, the New York state Assembly passed a bill in June that would prohibit the release of identifiable information without parental consent, but the bill must wait until the Senate is back in session to approve it, most likely at the beginning of 2014.

An executive order by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal in May, meanwhile, said that no personally identifiable data on students or their families could be given to the federal government or used commercially.

The Common Sense Media initiative aims to promote a conversation between all of the stakeholders on this issue, especially the educational technology companies themselves. Scholastic Inc., which produces a number of technology-based education programs, said in a statement that the company looks forward to the conversation Common Sense Media started, and that all the data collected by its programs are the property of the participating school. The statement added that Scholastic only analyzes non-personally-identifiable data to learn how to improve its software.

Kyle Good, a senior vice president of corporate communications forScholastic, said the company takes data privacy very seriously, and added that she believes that technology’s benefits to both teachers and students should not get lost in the conversation.

Associate Editor Sean Cavanagh contributed to this article.

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Media Group Calls on Companies To Protect Students’ Personal Data

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