Multi-Year Initiative to Nail Down Student Privacy Issues in Education Software

Common Sense Media is working with districts to understand student privacy issues and develop safe practices for software use.

Working with 40 school districts, including some of the largest ones in the country, the education division of Common Sense Media has gone public with details about a long-term project to help schools better understand student data privacy issues and choose applications that commit to safe practices in their terms of service and privacy policies. The announcement was made during SXSWedu taking place this week in Austin, TX.

Common Sense Education's new Privacy Evaluation Initiative is a multi-year effort that will kick off with publication of an information security primer. The primer will explain how schools can perform their own information security reviews, set up testing scenarios for Web and mobile apps, and release the results of the testing "responsibly," said Bill Fitzgerald, director of the initiative for Common Sense. Fitzgerald said the draft of the text for the primer will first go to district partners and then be released in final form under a Creative Commons license on April 1 at

Common Sense will also release a question set that builds off rubrics developed by the districts. Each question maps to a federal privacy statute such as FERPA or COPPA and other data-handling best practices and can then be used to evaluate the privacy policies of specific programs. That is expected to surface later this year.

That will eventually be followed by the release of an application programming interface that will allow teachers to look up a given app and read through a quick summary of its privacy profile. Those summaries are currently being built right now with the help of dozens of educators within districts that have teamed up with Common Sense on the work.

The API and privacy information will first be used in Common Sense's own education app Web site, Graphite, which offers reviews of thousands of education programs. But eventually, those data privacy assessments could show up on other sites that promote education technology too, said Fitzgerald.

"The expertise of our partner districts, and their day-to-day experience evaluating software and working with vendors, grounds this work in the realities faced by students and teachers using technology," he explained in a press release. "We are working together to create accessible and straightforward criteria that district leaders, teachers, students, parents and vendors can readily understand."

Among those district partners are Houston Independent School District and Fairfax County Public Schools, both of which approached Common Sense two years ago to get feedback on their own efforts related to the evaluation of the privacy practices of the ed tech vendors producing the programs their teachers were increasingly adopting in the classroom.

Now a larger consortium of districts has joined in on the work, and Common Sense is inviting additional schools to participate as well.

Each app is put through a rigorous review process specifically to evaluate its terms of service and privacy policies. The goals are twofold: to help teachers chose ed tech wisely; and to help vendors improve their own policies related to student data.

Fitzgerald said too few people take the time to read the policies for the apps they download, yet it's easily done. And if it isn't easy, perhaps it's an app that shouldn't be used by students. "This is the dirty secret about privacy: If you can read, you can do it. Privacy policies are written in English. If you have a middle school reading app, and it requires a post-graduate degree to understand the privacy terms, that's a problem. How can a middle schooler using that app expect to understand what they're reading?"

He said his hope is that the work of the initiative will encourage teachers to become more proactive in their tech-related decisions. "If you determine that tech is an essential component to what you're doing, read the terms."

The privacy initiative was undertaken with funding support from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.