Thursday, October 27, 2016

Babies, Bathwater, and Students on the Internet: How to protect student's personal information and integrate technology

Babies, Bathwater, and Students on the Internet:  How to protect student's personal information and integrate technology

The internet is teeming with websites dedicated to personalizing student instruction and assisting teachers with running a paperless classroom.  Sites like Class Dojo for behavior management, online grade books like ThinkWave, and content providers like Sumdog, Prodigy, BrainPOP, and NoRedInk tantalize educators with digital solutions to many instructional and time-centered issues in the classroom.  Have you ever considered how many sites you, and consequently your students, may have accounts with?  All of those accounts require the sharing of personal information...which may be sold, hacked, or abandoned if the company behind the site collapses.

National parent group Parents Across America have begun sounding the alarm regarding the use of student information on the internet, specifically concerned about personalized learning and the over-abundance of student information that is shared by our schools with software vendors.  This informational/watchdog group is concerned with the potential for student information not only to be hacked, but the amount of information stored "in the cloud" about individual children.  This information can include individually identifiable information like last name and birth date, as well as sensitive information such as behavior data, instructional data, or survey results.  Parents Across America have recently addressed this issue with the video below.

"But don't we have laws preventing such sharing?" you may be asking.  Well sure we do, both COPPA and FERPA address student information sharing.  However, to prepare for online testing during the implementation of Race to the Top, now the Every Student Succeeds Act, the laws that protected the sharing of student information were loosened.  This alteration allowed schools to share identifiable student information with software and hardware vendors, purportedly to help improve their products, but it also allows for them to share information with other vendors and developers, most often without notice to the parent, teacher, or school district.

Many parents, fearing the loss of control over their child's personal information, have begun refusing, or "opting out of", any and all website subscriptions for their child.  This means school districts and teachers cannot use the multitude of digital products with specifically opted out children in their classroom.  Imagine being the teacher of a classroom of 20 students where two of them cannot use the internet, an iPad, a laptop or Chromebook, or websites that require an individual subscription.  This effectively means the classroom teacher plans two separate lessons, or decides not to use technology at all in their classroom.

The release of student's personal information to vendors who may or may not use it carefully and wisely is understandably a scary idea for teachers and parents alike.  However, we don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  There are steps that can be taken to assure student's are gaining the appropriate digital skills while keeping all their information safe.

Knowing what websites and apps are being used by your child’s teachers is the first step in balancing instruction and safety.  Some questions you may want to ask are:

  • What websites or apps are you using in the classroom?

  • Do these sites/apps require my child have an individual login?

  • Has the school taken steps to be sure my child’s personal information is safe?

In addition to the questions above, ask the school to follow the following guidelines when creating individual logins or accounts for your child (which they should already be doing, but it's prudent to make sure they are):

  • Use only my child’s first name and last initial when possible

  • Avoid sites/apps with excessive amounts of advertising

  • Send home any parent codes that are available for sites/apps so I can monitor my child’s use

  • I reserve the right to refuse to allow my child to participate in web-based activities if I feel the site is not respectful of my child’s personal information

Notice the recommendations do not include banning the use of the internet all together. As we move to an increasingly digital world, it is important our students receive the information and skills to live, work, and play safely in a digital space.

There is a way to check on how tech companies are using the information they gather.While there is no federal or state clearinghouse for “safe” sites that use children’s personal information in a responsible way, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) authorizes a variety of independent reviewers to review each gadget to make sure it aligns with the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) standards. Here are some companies that FTC has given permission to act as "safe harbors:

If you have questions about a particular site or app, the companies listed above may have reviewed it already for COPPA compliance.  Use these companies to check on the sites/apps that are being used in your child’s classroom as well.
A strong partnership with your child’s teacher/school and the information above should help you with keeping your child’s personal information safe while they use the internet.  While some parents have just banned their children from the internet for safety reasons, a more realistic response in our increasingly digital world is to monitor your child’s online behavior, communicate with your child’s school, and teach your child to protect their own personal information.
What is your opinion on student use of technology at school, or at home?  How do you make sure your child's personal information is not shared in an unsafe way?

Or have you thrown the baby out with the bathwater???

Out on a Whim,


For more wild ideas about tech integration

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