Keeping Your Child Safe Learning Online

Understanding Student Data Privacy

Office of Ed Tech
May 28, 2020 · 6 min read

As a former middle school math public school teacher, I found that educational technology and data collection allowed me to identify where my students excelled and struggled, and to meet their needs in real time.

Data collection through educational technology has many advantages like, among others, allowing teachers to easily personalize learning, know when a student is struggling, and meet students’ needs. With the proper safeguards and when used in accordance with privacy laws, educational technology is something you should feel comfortable and excited about your child using because of its many potential advantages, and how it can transform and enhance your child’s learning.

But what if you sent your child off to school and the time they spent in the restroom was being tracked in an app? What if your student was being told to use a platform without proper protection of their data and personal information and this information was later compromised and exploited by criminals?

These are some of the many considerations that school leaders, school districts, and state education agencies take into account when deciding what educational technologies to invest in, what precautions they need to take in protecting student data, and informing parents and students of these protections. Now that students all over the country are making the transition to remote learning, these precautions are more important than ever for parents and guardians to understand.

Boy operating a tablet.
Boy operating a tablet.
Photo by stem.T4L on Unsplash

What can I look out for to protect the privacy of my child’s personally identifiable information?

There are federal¹ and state laws that are designed to protect your student’s privacy. However, it may be helpful to familiarize yourself with any online learning providers with whom your student’s school and teachers share personally identifiable information about your student and to understand how your student engages with these providers.

Protecting your student’s personally identifiable information that is shared with educational technology providers does not have to be an intimidating task. We suggest a few small steps²:

  1. Review any information provided by your student’s teacher and school leaders on the educational technology that your student will be using and what your school and school district are doing to protect your student’s data privacy.
  • The school may provide you with a notice about the personally identifiable information they collect and share. Read it carefully³. If you are uncomfortable, you can opt-out of the sharing of information from your student’s education records that is considered “directory information.”
  • Do not hesitate to ask your teacher or school leaders about the privacy considerations for the specific educational platforms and technologies they will be using during this time, especially if these have not previously been used by the school.
  • You can request information about how your student’s personally identifiable information and data are protected by your school and your school district. Most school districts have a process that reviews educational technology before it is used by students who attend the school district, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all of the apps, platforms, or sites your student uses have been reviewed and approved at the school district-level.

2. When you are interested in reviewing a particular platform that your child is using, search for organizations that have done some of the work for you.

Common Sense Media has compiled a list of sites, platforms, etc. and has scored them based on their ability to protect your child’s privacy and data. This is a good place to start when seeking to understand how various platforms work and how to protect your child online.

Graphic provided by The Office of Educational Technology

3. Read the terms and conditions of service for any website or platform your child uses.

While this might seem intimidating, there has recently been a push to make sure these are written in language that can be easily understood, especially on education technology sites and platforms. But since these are not always easy to understand there are some red flags you can look out for that might signal a breach or sharing of your child’s data and information. Examples of things to look out for include advertisements for various products on the learning platform, not receiving a notification that your data is being collected upon entering a site, and more which can be found on a checklist provided by our Student Privacy Policy Office.

4. Use platforms that your child is already using, which have likely already been reviewed by your child’s school or district to comply with privacy laws.

If your child’s teacher suggests a new program and doesn’t tell you whether it is approved or not, consider following up and requesting that information. In general, your child should not use any new platforms until you take the steps outlined in #2 and #3 to ensure there are no privacy problems with the platforms.

5. Your child is never too young to understand data privacy.

Have a conversation with your child about what to look out for and empower them to advocate for themselves by asking questions when agreeing to terms of service both inside and outside of the classroom. One example of this might be having a discussion with your child to run any programs, sites, etc. by you that require your child to be thirteen or older in order to access them. Your child could also be in the habit of asking whoever recommended a particular technology or platform to them whether or not the data from the site will be kept, sold, or shared.

How will my efforts to protect my child online now contribute to the safety of all students in the future?

For many families, it is unclear who can control, access, and see their child’s data. Your efforts during this time can contribute to an online world in which consent is more valued, understood, and needed for data sharing and collection.

[1] Such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which are administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

[2] It is important to note that the following suggestions are for families of children who are elementary or secondary school students who are under eighteen years of age. Additional considerations may apply under FERPA and other laws in the context of students who are eighteen years or older or attend institutions of postsecondary education.

[3] Also, carefully review your child’s school or school district’s FERPA (and if your student is a child with a disability, the IDEA) annual notice of rights, including the criteria in the notice about who constitutes a “school official” and what constitutes a “legitimate educational interest.” (Schools and school districts also may disclose, without your prior written consent, personally identifiable information from students’ education records to online learning providers that are school officials with legitimate educational interests, provided that other conditions set forth at 34 CFR § 99.31(a)(1) are satisfied).

Maile Symonds serves as a Program Specialist for the Office of Educational Technology, where she has contributed to the #GoOpen initiative, connectivity work, and professional learning and teacher preparedness exploration. Prior to joining OET, Maile served as a math teacher in Waianae, Hawaii.

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Keep Calm and Connect All Students

A distance learning series from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology

Keep Calm and Connect All Students

As a response to school closures & remote learning measures, this series shares reflection questions, highlights promising solutions & describes effective practices. Each week will focus on a new theme geared toward families, learners, educators & system leaders.

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The Office of Educational Technology (OET) provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education at all levels.

Keep Calm and Connect All Students

As a response to school closures & remote learning measures, this series shares reflection questions, highlights promising solutions & describes effective practices. Each week will focus on a new theme geared toward families, learners, educators & system leaders.