I recently attended a prominent and popular educational technology conference. As I always do, I made sure to visit the vendors’ floor. I like to be able to chat with company representatives, see what new tools they have, play with tools hands on, and generally get a feel for promising new resources available to schools.
At this particular conference I was excited to visit a vendor’s booth that focused on 3D printing software. It promised to be easier and more intuitive to use. When I signed up for the account necessary to use the online tool, I did something that many people do not do: I read the terms of service.
The first thing I noticed was the “age 13” requirement. I asked the representative if they had an option for children under the age of 13. She responded, “Well… not officially. But it all depends on how seriously you take the terms of service.” I promptly ended the session and walked away from the table.
Here’s the reason this exchange was so striking and troubling for me: There is a pervasive attitude in educational technology (held by educators, IT professionals, developers and students) that the terms of service “don’t matter.” After all, (nod-nod-wink-wink) you can fudge your age by a few years or a few months and take advantage of great tools such as YouTube or Twitter (both of which have such restrictions).
This is for the benefit of the children, right? If the tool is useful, many will say, why do we need to bother with such hurdles as age requirements? And let’s face it, those Terms of Service are so long – we don’t have time to read all that!
But the reality is that the Terms of Service do matter.
When discussing this issue with peers, I always highlight the fact that we cannot ask our students to behave ethically and morally if we direct them to violate policies and the rules for using tools by being deceptive. In essence we are telling our students that it is not appropriate to lie or cheat, with the caveat that it’s okay in this one situation.
If you want to advocate for an effective Digital Citizenship program, you must first take the position that behaving responsibly and appropriately online is paramount. As such, this means not violating a company’s age or usage policy (even if someone in the company might suggest it’s okay).
Believe it or not, the age 13 requirement found in many Terms of Service statements is rarely an arbitrary policy. While governments (local, state, and federal) are slow to catch up with existing and emerging technology, there are several federal statutes already in place. The two most important are FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act). These statutes specifically relate to what information can be collected, stored, and transferred – and they include especially stringent restrictions on children under the age of 13. By signing students up for these tools, you and your institution may be in violation of Federal law. Disregard for these policies not only compromises the safety of your students, but opens a school and individuals up to institutional and personal liability.
The ethics of commercializing education
One of the most controversial issues in education today is the commercialization of education. This is especially relevant in educational technology. Many companies offering free or heavily discounted tools use a business model based on collecting and then selling information (names, birthdates, contact lists, and more).
While the world is very much aware of these practices with Social Media tools like Facebook, other services are less obvious in the way they collect user content and what they do with it after the fact. When you see that a service requires all users to be age 13, that should be the first red flag that sensitive data is being collected and possibly redistributed or sold to third parties.
Most companies are not transparent about what they do with the information they collect – a practice that many of us in the educational technology sphere are rallying to change. Several states are considering legislation to put restrictions on what type of data companies can collect on students and who can then see that information.
Most recently,Google has been sued for violating student privacy and their stated contract conditions in Google Apps for Education by data mining students’ emails. (It is important to note that, at this time, Google claims that the data-mined content is not being distributed to third parties or used for advertising purposes.)
Pay attention to what companies collect
If an educational technology company collects information on your students, then it is important to take this into consideration as you consider the digital tools that you will use in your institution. Perhaps you feel that the benefits outweigh the extra cost of paying for a tool that is not underwritten by these kinds of practices (especially if your school and/or district is cash strapped). But don’t pass over these decisions lightly.
Safer tools are available
There are many great tools and online services available for students that specifically focus on protecting the information and identities of students under the age 13. Often, these have a financial cost (as they cannot make money through other avenues like advertising or selling personal data). Still the costs are negligible when you focus on how they protect children.
To find a tool that will work for your institution, be sure to go with a reputable company, read their Terms of Service, speak to a representative and ask questions such as, “How do you protect students’ identities online?” and “What do you do with the information that you collect from our students such as names and email addresses?” Companies that are truly COPPA and FERPA compliant are always willing to be open and transparent with this information.
Another great resource to find and assess an organization’s COPPA compliance is with TRUSTe. A TRUSTe COPPA Compliance Certification ensures that an organization meets Federal compliance for protecting the information of students under the age of 13. Recognize that not all COPPA compliant tools have been certified with TRUSTe, but that those that are have met stringent requirements and adhere to these statutes.
Tools that allow teachers to be administrators of the tool or service (restricting content & publication and monitoring use) can provide your students with a safe, “walled garden” environment that will allow them to take advantage of internet connectivity while being safe. Additionally, be sure that your Technology Director has fully explored the service (and continues to do so as the service is updated) to ensure that the service stays compliant with its previously stated policies (sometimes an update will negate earlier privacy restrictions). Also, any time that there is a update to those Terms of Service – read them!!
Student security comes first
Anytime you are considering an online tool or service, it’s important to ensure that the security of your students plays a key role in your decision. Implementation of new tools in your school or classroom should never violate a company’s Terms of Service and should always be in compliance with existing law. Members of the educational community (administration, faculty, parents, and students) should be involved in the broader conversations about reasonable restrictions.
I believe it is also important to advocate for greater student privacy and security, and I think that transparency on the side of developers is absolutely vital in this process. We cannot effectively make decisions for our schools without adequate information. Ultimately, schools and districts must make choices that are right for them and their communities, with their eyes wide open.
Latest posts by Jennifer Carey (see all)
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