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Concerns Over Student Privacy Grow As Education Apps Become Popular

Sunday, November 8th, 2015

The world of education is witnessing a sea change because of the Smartphone era. If you browse popular app stores on the web, you will come across thousands of educational apps that not only complement school education, they can also help the teachers to plan and execute their lessons in a much better way. However, like all the good things in life, mobile based educational apps come with their own set of problems. As the adoption of educational apps gathers momentum, school administrators are discovering the privacy challenges associated with them and are scrambling to find ways to protect the privacy of students.

As per a report published by New York Times, venture funded start-up organizations are releasing new educational apps almost on a daily basis. However, not all educational apps are designed with privacy in mind which leaves the private data of student as well as teachers vulnerable to theft and misuse. Several school districts have already witnessed cases of identity theft, unauthorized data collection and even publishing of personal details of students on the web due to the use of new and untested educational apps. Chief technology officers working for the school districts are now grappling with the problem of protecting the privacy of the students while still allowing them to benefit from educational apps.

The privacy challenges associated with educational apps get compounded by the fact that most of them work on a freemium business model. This allows teachers to sign up and test a new app for free but still allows developers to make money at a later stage when the app is adopted by a school district. Since any teacher can sign up to test a new educational app, this represents a huge security challenge for all school districts. Security experts say that while teachers can check the effectiveness of a new app for educational purposes, they are not equipped to vet the privacy features of the app.

Many legal experts also believe that companies creating educational apps are in fact bypassing federal privacy laws by offering the apps directly to the teachers. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) states that school districts must keep the data of students confidential while the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) mandates that schools must obtain the permission of students’ parents before sharing their personal data. Also, since the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has already recommended that teachers should not make privacy decisions on behalf of their students, app creators are clearly on the wrong side of the law.

Several school districts are trying to deal with the problem in their own way. While some districts have created their own rating systems for apps and digital learning products and are using them to rate apps, others are conducting reviews of digital educational products. Some school districts have also made it compulsory for the teachers to seek approval from the schools or technology officers before testing a new app. Realizing the seriousness of the problem, the Department of Education has released its own set of guidelines in order to help the schools to preserve the privacy of their students.

November 8, 2015

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