Student Data Privacy: An Overview

In recent years, the influx of learning technologies and management systems in schools has led to an expansion of educational data collection. Many school districts are shifting toward cloud-based networking for data storage and hundreds of online resources are used in schools. Advocates of standards-based and competency-based learning expect more accountability from schools — this expectation is one driver of increased student data collection.With the new forms of data that learning technologies produce in schools, parents, legislators, and advocacy groups have become increasingly concerned about student data privacy. Student data privacy conversations center on concerns regarding the safeguarding of data collected in educational settings. These concerns oftentimes revolve around a fear of student information being sold to third parties for targeted advertising purposes. Other concerns include the hyper surveillance of vulnerable groups of students, schools selling students’ personal details to marketing companies, and schools using data to make potentially damaging decisions about children. This blog post details examples of instances in which student data privacy has been breached.

CC BY 2.0-licensed img_7039 by Marcin Ignac.

Issues of equity are intertwined with student data privacy concerns. The ACLU has stressed the issue of students being afforded different privacy protections due to socioeconomic status. Students who are more likely to use school-provided devices that are subject to school monitoring are also more likely to be of low socioeconomic status. On the other hand, the students of high socioeconomic status are able to have their own devices that are not subject to school monitoring.

Tension arises within education research between balancing privacy concerns and allowing for the constructive use of data. Proponents of the collection of student data note potential benefits for tailoring learning experiences to individual students through personalized learning and improving teaching strategies[Office3] . In a recent report, McKinsey notes the possibility of using student data to match students to jobs, reduce education costs, and guide resource allocation. Others cite the possibility of using data to sort and track students to reduce the effects of bias, or using it as a way to hold teachers accountable for their performance.

The concentration on student data privacy in the media rose with the shutdown of a student data management company that was working to create systems that would synthesize data across separate systems for school [Office4] districts called inBloom in 2014. As inBloom developed, a small group of parent advocates began to raise concern about student data privacy and data collection in schools. By the end of 2015, 182 student data privacy bills were introduced and 46 states intended to bolster protections for student information.

The primary pieces of legislation related to student data privacy are the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Children Online Privacy Protection ACT (COPPA). FERPA is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. A brief overview of FERPA can be found here. COPPA is a law that requires the FTC to issue and enforce regulations concerning children’s online privacy. California’s Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (SOPIPA) directly regulates third parties and has had a strong influence on legislation in other states, with 27 of the 73 measures passed in 2016 being based on SOPIPA. Frequently asked questions and answers about COPPA can be found here. In 2016, 73 new pieces of legislation on data privacy governance were introduced.


The Berkman Center for Internet & Society & Data and Society Research Institute release a bi-monthly newsletter on Student Privacy, Equity & Digital Literacy. The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) published an overview of trends in student data privacy bills in 2016. Joel Reidenberg of Fordham University’s Center on Law and Information Policy (CLIP) published a report on the protection of student privacy in the context of cloud computing.

This publication by the Data Quality Campaign provides advice for state education agencies seeking to protect student data. Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)’s Protecting Privacy Toolkit is a guide for educators and policy makers aiming to protect student data privacy.The ACLU provides model legislation that they argue fills the gaps in student data privacy protections.