What a Pledge Says About the State of Ed Tech Privacy

The education technology industry responds to increasing public concern about student data privacy.

by / October 10, 2014 0

A student privacy pledge continues the national conversation about technology tools in schools.

Public concern has been rising over the last year as parents and privacy advocates learn more about how education technology vendors are using their students' data — and don't like what they find. Notably, Google admitted to scanning student emails for advertising purposes this year, though it later said it would no longer continue the practice. And a Politico investigative piece in May highlighted the practices and policies of many other companies.

State legislatures took action this year by introducing 110 bills related to student data privacy, 26 of which were signed into law. And U.S. Reps. Jared Polis (Colorado) and Luke Messer (Indiana) convened a group of industry and education leaders in June to talk about student data privacy issues.

Out of that conversation, two industry-backed groups — the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software & Information Industry Association — developed the student privacy pledge to address many of the major privacy concerns. The pledge includes 12 commitments to do or not do certain things with student data, including not selling it, not building student profiles for purposes other than school, and clearly disclosing how data is used in contracts and privacy policies. And it addresses some of the perceived weaknesses of federal legislation on student education record privacy, as well as the major issues that state legislatures dealt with in their new laws.

Fourteen K-12 school service providers signed the pledge initially when it was announced on Oct. 7, and that number has climbed to 22 since then. Microsoft, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Knewton, Amplify and Code.org all signed it.

What's troubling is who hasn't signed it: Apple, Google, Khan Academy and Pearson, for example, said Bradley S. Shear, a digital privacy lawyer with Shear Law in Maryland. 

"If a company's not going to agree to some baseline student privacy protection that are backed by organizations that they belong to, I think it's very troubling, and I think school administrators and parents should take notice," Shear said.

But Steve Mutkoski, director of government affairs for Microsoft worldwide public sector, prefers to look on the bright side. A year ago, no companies would have come together to make a pledge like this, so to have 14 initial service providers and their lawyers on board is a sign of how far the industry has come.

The pledge is an acknowledgement that some companies are doing troubling things with student data and that more transparency is needed, Shear said. It also demonstrates industry's efforts to clean up this space.

By signing the pledge, education technology service providers are committing to be more transparent about what they do with student data, Mutkoski said. After all, the providers are the ones who know exactly what happens to student data, and they don't always clearly explain what's going on in their privacy agreements, contracts or discussions.

And it also shows that industry is listening and responding to the concerns of parents and privacy advocates, Mutkoski said. Whether companies sign the pledge or not, the principles are important to agree to and share in companies' campaigns and privacy agreements. 

"This is definitely just one step of many that we in industry need to take," Mutkoski said. "It's not the exclusive way, it's not the only way, and I certainly don't believe that everyone is going to necessarily sign it."   

The goal as Mutkoski sees it is to keep addressing privacy issues so that parents are comfortable allowing their kids to use education technology.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.