Is Privacy Protected When a Student Learns Online?

Image made with Wordfoto with a picture taken at the Library of Congress.

Image made with Wordfoto with a picture taken at the Library of Congress.

If you think that the digital world may be getting it together on the privacy front, at least when it comes to children, think again.

A disturbing article, Data Mining Your Children, published in Politico, describes how for-profit online learning companies provide digital textbooks, connected learning programs, and record keeping, while collecting an enormous amount of information on individual students. The question is, what will they do with this personal data? Politico is a Washington newspaper that covers national government policy and politics.          

Many education companies and startups market programs to schools. These digital textbooks and websites offer learning opportunities while simultaneously collecting second-by-second learning information individual children. Schools purchase and sign contracts with for-profit educational vendors without taking specific steps to ensure the privacy of student data. As part of the article, Politico reporters examined the privacy statements on hundreds of online learning sites, programs, and school district contracts, discovering that student privacy in most instances is not even an issue brought to the table. Article author, Stephanie Simon, writes:

The data revolution has also put heaps of intimate information about school children in the hands of private companies — where it is highly vulnerable to being shared, sold, or mined for profit.

Privacy spiralThe full Politco article is a must-read for educators and parents, but below are a few significant quotes.

      • Companies are supposed to keep standardized test scores, disciplinary history and other official student records confidential… But the law did not anticipate the explosion in online learning
      • After POLITICO inquired about Khan Academy’s privacy policy, which gave it the right to draw on students’ personal information to send them customized advertising, the policy was completely rewritten. The new text, posted online late last week, emphasizes Khan Academy’s commitment to protecting privacy and deletes the line about targeted advertising.
      • Code.org requires that its partner schools turn over up to a dozen years of academic records, including test scores, on every participating student, according to a model contract reviewed by POLITICO.

Part of the privacy problem is that older government and school district policies lag way behind the online products now available in the digital world. Policy makers and educational institutions have yet to come to terms with the amount of data that children create as they participate in online learning activities, and it appears that few have even thought about it. Reporter Stephanie Simon points out that the Family Educational Rights and Protection Act (FERPA) was written in 1974.  That’s before most people were even using a computer.

Is privacy for people of all ages simply going to disappear?

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