US classrooms are embracing digital education tools as a way to cut costs and improve learning. But some of the same tools helping teachers track a student’s learning may also unintentionally disclose that student’s personal information.
That’s the problem federal lawmakers have been attempting to solve. On Wednesday, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) reintroduced the Protecting Student Privacy Act, which would curtail student data sharing by private companies collecting data in schools.
“Data analysis holds promise for increasing student achievement, but it also holds peril from a privacy perspective,” Markey said in a press release.
“A child’s educational record should not be sold as a product on the open market,” Markey said.
PSPA would shield students from targeted ads based on information gathered in schools and allow parents access to information about their children. Currently, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act — the strongest law of its kind on the books — does not bar companies from sharing students’ data, as long as the user consents.
The act comes as revelations of data monitoring and sharing by private companies continue to trouble parents and schools nationwide. While schools are increasingly adopting digital learning tools, these same programs often risk jeopardizing student privacy.
According to a 2013 study by Fordham Law School, 95% of schools use cloud-based services for essential functions. These functions, ranging from cafeteria payment to student assistance and adaptive learning programs, collect and store student data. But of the 95% of schools, only 7% have mandatory protections to keep companies from storing and selling that data to advertisers.
Many teaching tools used in classrooms are granting private companies access to personal student data, including attendance rates, grades and disciplinary records. As the New York Times points out, some programs collect and store information as sensitive as voice recordings, photos, and grades.
Privacy advocates argue this puts student privacy at risk by allowing those companies to sell student data to advertisers and other online vendors. During bankruptcy proceedings in 2014, college prep company ConnectEDU considered selling personal information of millions of students and parents. Some of the personal information included students’ GPAs and even disability status.
Advocates have won some high-profile cases. After significant public outcry, in 2014 Google announced it wouldstopscanning student emails in its Apps for Education program.In March, a New Jersey bloggerrevealedthat test prep giant Pearson was secretly monitoring Twitter posts by local students registered to take the company’s tests, looking for potential cheaters. Students and teachers immediately released a statement demanding that the company stop its monitoring, forcing Pearson to disclose that they had altered their policy.
But even if the proposed restrictions pass, student data-mining is still likely to be a headache for schools hoping to protect their students’ information. Under the new rules, teachers in many states and districts would still be able to sign up for teaching programs that may be sharing student information without their knowledge.
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