Newspaper article International New York Times

Schools Struggle to Monitor Learning Apps' Risks ; New Digital Tools Outpace Ability to Track How Data on Students Is Being Used

Newspaper article International New York Times

Schools Struggle to Monitor Learning Apps' Risks ; New Digital Tools Outpace Ability to Track How Data on Students Is Being Used

Article excerpt

New digital tools have left school districts' technology directors scrambling to keep track of which companies are collecting students' information -- and how they are using it.

At school districts across the country, the chief technology officers responsible for safeguarding student data are tearing their collective hair out.

Scores of education technology start-ups, their pockets full from a rush of venture capital, are marketing new digital learning tools directly to teachers -- with many offering them free to get a foothold in schools. That has enabled educators nationwide to experiment with a host of novel "adaptive learning" products, like math and foreign language apps that record and analyze students' online activities to personalize their lessons.

But the new digital tools have also left school district technology directors scrambling to keep track of which companies are collecting students' information -- and how they are using it.

"A teacher can sign up for anything, without the knowledge of anyone else in the district," said Steve Young, the chief technology officer of Judson Independent School District, a system with some 23,500 students in San Antonio.

Already, some districts have experienced data breaches with software they purchased from vendors; in a few cases, student records have been publicly posted on the Internet. And cybersecurity researchers have discovered security weaknesses in a couple of dozen popular digital learning services. Some legal scholars contend that the practice of signing up teachers directly -- in lieu of their school districts -- skirts federal privacy laws. Administrators like Mr. Young say they want teachers to have free access to the best learning apps. Yet guarding against the potential pitfalls -- data breaches, identity theft, unauthorized student profiling -- is a herculean endeavor.

"It's a huge challenge for big districts," Mr. Young said, "and an even bigger challenge for smaller districts."

These concerns are likely to widen as education technology proliferates. Last year, the market for educational software aimed at prekindergarten through 12th-grade students amounted to nearly $8.4 billion, up from $7.5 billion in 2010, according to the Software and Information Industry Association, a trade group.

Yet, for now at least, each school district, of which there are more than 14,000 in the United States, is confronting these challenges and devising solutions on its own.

At Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, technology experts have conducted their own security reviews of several hundred digital learning products -- and failed a few of the most popular ones. In Houston, one of the largest districts in the country, administrators are testing their own rating system for digital learning products and developing a set of district-approved apps for teachers.

And at Raytown Quality Schools, in Raytown, Mo., Melissa Tebbenkamp, the district's director of instructional technology, vets every app teachers want to try before allowing them to be used with students. Among other things, she checks to make sure those services do not exploit students' email addresses to push products on them or share students' details with third parties.

"We have a problem with sites targeting our teachers and not being responsible with our data," Ms. Tebbenkamp said. For school technology directors around the country, she added, "it is a can of worms. …

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