Dozens of seemingly well-intentioned student privacy bills have been dropped on state houses recently — not exactly a coincidence. Those interested in maintaining a centralized approach to data management — and software sales — have suddenly caught the privacy religion. But there’s lots of trouble with this old dogma.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) has gotten into the act releasing guidance on the subject — and it mirrors the big corporate approach of centralized approval. Their guidance was appropriate for 2009 but it’s outdated in 2014. Perhaps they don’t realize how significantly things have changed in the last five years when most teachers, parents, and students have begun using free and open online resources.

The first problem with these bills is that they could prevent personalized learning — the most important development in the history of education. They could eliminate the ability to create and transfer portable student records. They could even limit a parent’s right to share student information with a tutor or after school program.

The second issue is the preoccupation with advertising — a red herring from 25 years ago. There are no EdTech business models built on advertising. Stick to the consumer space, these are bills proposed to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Third, these bills are anti-teacher. They dramatically limit teacher voice and block innovation. By requiring districts to approve everything teachers use, they undermine teacher professionalism and reinforce the Big Brother enterprise view of the world. These bills would require teacher entrepreneurs building new solutions to spend half of their budget on the old dysfunctional district sales cycle.

Bad idea but not policy. 

It’s important for districts to remember that the guidance issued by the Department is a suggestion, it’s not a requirement to create a new centralized approval process.

The guidance is a good reminder for everyone involved in education to take the issue of privacy seriously.  As formal education incorporates the awesome potential for personalized learning, the key is for policy makers to embrace innovation and privacy.

Much of this brouhaha is part of the bigger fight between entrenched enterprise software vendors and innovative education companies using Internet-focused forms of distribution.  While the big enterprise guys beg to differ, Internet terms of service (sometimes called “clickwrap agreements”) are as legally binding as written agreements–the validity of internet contracts is well established.  What’s important is what is in the contract, it’s not whether the agreement is given to the customer over the Internet or by a traditional salesperson, and the sooner everyone can focus on that, the more we can protect student privacy.

Privacy concerns are covered by FERPA and by Federal Trade Commission laws especially given recent changes giving parents better mobile app privacy. Any gaps should be fixed here rather than a crazy patchwork of 50 different state privacy laws.

Teachers should be allowed to continue to find and use the best resources available (and they’re getting better every week!).  They should read associated clickwrap agreements. Vendors, for their part, should make agreements readable and transparent, and their agreements should clearly state how they are using student data. Lighthouse companies connect to parental permissions at the school level for use agreements that are more muscular than clickwrap.

Before their privacy roadshow, the Department should rethink its outdated guidance. And those interested in perpetuating the old centralized model of education should focus their efforts more on helping kids learn than on maintaining their control over how educational tools are distributed.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Well said, Tom
    In looking at other countries’ policies and education models as a guide, there is a widening gap in the adoption and use of technology pervasively in all facets of the American education experience, and it’s imperative we leverage and modify best practices to accelerate progress, not prevention in education.

    There is an enormous latent problem with public policy makers not keeping pace with compliant and secure innovations in technology. Considering the extent we as consumers rely on secure technology and access to our private information across banking and eCommerce alone suggests the policy makers should focus on accepting current standards and cutting red tape to innovation or public acceptance of it.
    eLearning education platforms began more than a decade ago and represent one of the fastest growing segments of education today. Today there are more than 7 million students enrolled in online classes. This didn’t occur by accident, as both the convenience and affordability of online education in comparison to the rising costs physical enrollment and attendance continues. In fact, schools are responding to the demand, with 64% of colleges surveyed in 2012 offering fully online degree programs, compared to 32.5% in 2012, according to Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States.
    So effectively the policy makers accept present standards for our older children in higher education, but seemly don’t for our K-12 age children?
    It’s up to each one of us to factually challenge widespread misinformation being disseminated to parents, teachers, administrators and policy makers alike. Technology adoption and the use of data to improve both individual and nationwide learning against best practice benchmarks is one of the most critical elements to modernizing the educational system in the U.S. We all have an obligation to ensure that we prevent further delays that will put our children further behind. In the end, this hurts students and overall progress to solve these problems and improve student achievement.

  2. Those involved with shaping public policies on education need to recognize that antiquated policy red tape are impacting the velocity of modern american education and use of technology. We agree with Tom’s main point that these antiquated IT policy bills could prevent personalized learning — which is arguably “the most important development in the history of education.”

    In looking at other countries’ policies and education models as a guide, there is a widening gap in the adoption and use of technology pervasively in all facets of the American education experience, and it’s imperative we leverage and modify best practices to accelerate progress, not prevention in education.

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