Student Privacy | News

ED Talks Tough on Student Privacy

The United States Department of Education is actively taking on the hot-button issue of student data privacy by issuing new guidance for districts, schools, educators and parents.

Concerns about student privacy surfaced yet again last week during a regular session of the Florida state Department of Education meeting, when protesters showed up in response to a public plea by Floridians Against Common Core Education. The conservative organization called on groups to send representatives to fight the state's adoption of the new learning standards, which go into effect in Florida next school year. Among the fears expressed by parents: that the student data generated through adoption of the Common Core state standards and its related online assessments will be collected and used by the federal government and companies for non-educational purposes.

Yesterday during a talk at the Common Sense Media Privacy Zone Conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took on the question of student privacy directly: "For the record, the Department of Education itself isn't allowed to create a national database of individual student-level information, aside from mandated purposes like college loans. We don't, we haven't and we won't do that — period. And nothing about the new assessments, developed by consortia of states as part of new, higher standards, changes that."

A not-for-profit organization that provides information and tools to help people make choices regarding their media activities, Common Sense Media put on the event in partnership with Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands. The half-day event took place in Washington, D.C.

Teachers and schools are increasingly using "on-demand" delivery of personalized content, virtual forums for communicating with other classes, and other interactive technologies to enhance the learning process. Many of these features are delivered by service providers through Web-based applications. Data generated during their use in education is often saved to the "cloud," in remote data centers.

In his comments, Duncan noted the advantages of using technology in the classroom. "Technology — when it's used wisely — can enable teachers to focus their time on the things they do best, like teaching critical thinking and helping kids who are struggling. It can provide them up-to-the-minute information on where students are doing well and where they need more help. And it can help them reinvent the most traditional school experiences."

However, Duncan added, the benefits of that technology "can't be a trade-off with the security and privacy of our children. We must provide our schools, teachers and students cutting-edge learning tools. And we must protect our children's privacy. We can and must accomplish both goals — but we will have to get smarter to do it." The "bottom line," he said, "Personal data in education should be used only for educational purposes, not to sell students snack foods or video games."

The new guidance, a 14-page online document titled, "Protecting Student Privacy While Using Online Educational Services: Requirements and Best Practices," was issued by the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), a division of the Department of Ed led by Ed Chief Privacy Officer Kathleen Styles.

The document includes explanations and examples to answer the following questions:

  • Is student information used in online educational services protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)?
  • What does FERPA require if personally identifiable information from student records is disclosed to a service provider?
  • Do FERPA and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) limit what providers can do with student information their programs collect or receive?
  • What are the best practices for protecting student privacy when using online education services?

"As an education community, we have to do a far better job of helping teachers and administrators understand technology and data issues so that they can appropriately protect privacy while ensuring teachers and students have access to effective and safe tools," said Duncan in a statement. "We must provide our schools, teachers and students cutting-edge learning tools — and we must protect our children's privacy. We can accomplish both — but we will have to try harder to do it."

Bradley Shear, a privacy attorney who's advocated for greater digital privacy protections for students said that while he considers the guidance "a good first step," it doesn't go far enough. "There needs to be some type of regulations in place that discuss how long the data can be saved and for what purposes," he noted. "I don't think we should be using student records or student information gleaned from student emails or student digital school work for targeted or behavioral ads in the school system. That's something that I think is very important."

The Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) "commended" the PTAC guidance, calling it "very consistent" with SIIA's recently released Best Practices for school service providers. "Together, these efforts will ensure that we continue to protect student data and that a strong relationship of trust is built between providers, schools and families," said Mark Schneiderman, the trade associations' senior director of education policy. "Importantly, the efforts will help make certain our students continue to have access to leading-edge digital services critical to providing the world class education needed for success in the global economy."

Duncan suggested during his Common Sense Media talk that Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) would shortly be introducing legislation regarding student data privacy, while also adding a note, presumably to service providers regarding the potential misuse and commercialization of student data: "It is in your interest to police yourselves before others do."

The Department of Education and PTAC will be holding a public webinar on March 13 at 8:30 Eastern time (11:30 Pacific) to review the guidance and solicit public input on it. Registration is available here.

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