California to Put Limits on Use of Student Data ; Law Aims at Information Gathered by Education Technology Industry

By Singer, Natasha | International New York Times, September 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

California to Put Limits on Use of Student Data ; Law Aims at Information Gathered by Education Technology Industry


Singer, Natasha, International New York Times


The state is the first to place comprehensive limitations on how student information is exploited by the growing education technology industry.

At a New York state elementary school, teachers can use a behavior-monitoring app to compile information on which children have positive attitudes and which act out. In Georgia, some high school cafeterias are using a biometric identification system to let students pay for lunch by scanning the palms of their hands at the checkout line. And across the United States, school sports teams are using social media sites for athletes to exchange contact information and game locations.

Technology companies are collecting a vast amount of data about students, touching every corner of their educational lives, with few controls on how those details are used.

Now California is poised to become the first state to comprehensively restrict how such information is exploited by the growing education technology industry.

Lawmakers in the state passed a law last month banning educational sites, apps and cloud services used by schools from selling or disclosing personal information about students from kindergarten through high school; from using the children's data to market to them; and from compiling dossiers on them. The law is a response to growing parental concern that sensitive information about children -- like data about learning disabilities, disciplinary problems or family trauma -- might be disseminated and disclosed, potentially hampering college or career prospects. Although other states have enacted limited restrictions on such data, California's law is the most wide-ranging.

"It's a landmark bill in that it's the first of its kind in the country to put the onus on Internet companies to do the right thing," said Senator Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who wrote the bill.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a public position on the measure, or on a companion student privacy bill regulating school contracts with education technology vendors. If he does not act, the bills will become law at the end of this month. Senator Steinberg said the bills had broad bipartisan support and were likely to be enacted.

James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a children's advocacy and media ratings group in San Francisco, said the bills were ultimately intended to shore up parents' trust in online learning.

"You can't have an education technology revolution without strong privacy protections for students," said Mr. Steyer, whose group spearheaded the passage of Mr. Steinberg's bill. "Parents, teachers and kids can now feel confident that students' personal information can be used only for educational achievement."

In a sign of the rapid growth of the education technology industry, even Mr. Steyer's group has partnerships with Google, Apple and other software vendors, who distribute the group's ratings of apps and videos for children.

The California effort comes at a pivotal time for the industry. Schools nationwide have been rushing to introduce everything from sophisticated online portals, which allow students to see course assignments and send messages to teachers, to reading apps that can record and assess a child's every click. These data-driven products are designed to adapt to the abilities and pace of each child, holding out the promise of improved academic achievement.

Last year, sales of education technology software for prekindergarten through 12th grade reached an estimated $7.9 billion, according to the Software and Information Industry Association.

As schools embrace these personalized learning tools, however, parents across the country have started challenging the industry's information privacy and security practices.

"Different websites collect different kinds of information that could be aggregated to create a profile of a student, starting in elementary school," said Tony Porterfield, a software engineer and father of two pre-teenage sons in Los Altos, Calif. …

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