The app world appears poised to disrupt the education industry.  Countless start-ups, fueled by billions in venture capital, are scrambling to capture schools’ attention. At first glance, these companies offer innovative ways to engage students in the learning process. For instance, adaptive learning apps for subjects like math calibrate lessons to individual learning patterns. Other apps create virtual spaces that integrate online lessons with in-class communication, providing data analysis of the results.

While these tools offer novel ways to incorporate technology into the classroom, they also threaten widespread data insecurity. Schools are concerned that companies neglect to install sufficient privacy safeguards for students’ personal information, in their haste to produce apps. Schools also contend that many companies bypass their IT departments’ vetting procedures, instead targeting apps at individual teachers. Schools say teachers are not equipped to assess the apps, which may lack transparency about data-collection practices.

More problematic than the technology’s potential evasion of school policies is its alleged evasion of federal privacy laws. Under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), schools must keep student records confidential. FERPA requires schools to comply with certain notice and consent rules to release student records for participation in online programs.  The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) further bolsters schools’ role in controlling student records. COPPA allows schools to act in place of parents when monitoring young students’ personal information.  App companies that circumvent schools’ chains of command may be gathering student data without meeting baseline federal requirements. And several extensive data breaches have already occurred, in which students’ personal information was posted online. Meanwhile, other technology companies’ data practices threaten to undermine student privacy by maintaining flimsy safeguards. For instance, one company encrypted only its login page, leaving students vulnerable to privacy breaches on the rest of the site. Even if compliance were not an issue, experts say federal law would not cover many situations where teachers independently use the apps.

Schools have approached the federal law’s loopholes in a variety of ways, from employing rating systems to hiring technology experts who review the apps. However, this patchwork of approaches highlights the need for federal legislation to strengthen privacy controls.

This issue arguably has heightened implications due to the young age of those vulnerable to privacy harms. Yet there appears to be a disconnect between the two actors best situated to address the problem, schools and startups. Perhaps recent revelations about these salient privacy concerns will provide schools with better leverage for negotiating and customizing future versions of the apps. Regardless, start-ups that pivot towards more privacy-centric education tools will likely find themselves ahead of the pack.

Kelsey Zottnick

 

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