Issues with EdTech

No consent

Families are not empowered to withhold consent to EdTech platforms’ data practices. 

I never agreed to that! Most parents reasonably expect that information collected about their children during the school day, or using computers and tablets required by their school, will be used only for the very limited purpose of educating their children. Most parents would not expect that information collected about their kids is being commercialized or used for other purposes without parents’ actual consent. But this is happening: the nonprofit Internet Safety Labs (ISL) found that 60% of school apps sent student data to third party advertising platforms and that a mere 14% of schools enable parents to consent to technology use.

Turning privacy law on its head. In order to collect and commercialize student data without parent consent–or even over parents’ express objections–EdTech companies exploit loopholes in two federal laws meant to protect kids’ privacy:

  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA generally requires written parental consent to disclose student information to third parties, but permits “school officials” to do so in certain narrow circumstances. EdTech companies have turned this exception on its head, deeming themselves in their Terms of Service to be “school officials” with the right to collect and disseminate student information, but without submitting to the school’s direct control as required by the law.
  • Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA provides children under 13 additional protection against exploitative data practices.  EdTech companies and schools often erroneously claim that COPPA broadly permits schools to consent on behalf of parentsto the collection and commercial use of student information, even over parents’ express objections. The spirit and letter of this exception is far more limited than is the actual practice. Furthermore, it only applies to the FTC’s enforcement of COPPA. A law meant to protect the rights of young people on the internet should not be used to undermine their rights, but that is routinely happening. 

Retaliation and FOMO. Further, parents and their kids frequently forgo efforts to opt out of these platforms–or even seek information about them–for fear of retaliation by school officials. They don’t want to be viewed as “high maintenance” or create more work for already overworked teachers. They also don’t want to risk their children being ostracized or missing out on academic, extracurricular, or social opportunities by not being present and active on certain platforms.

Consent is not possible. The result is that the basic requirements of consent are absent: EdTech companies fail to disclose, in clear terms, what information they are collecting and how that information is used, so that parents and students can make an informed decision about whether to provide their consent to those practices. And parents seeking to opt out are left with undesirable consequences and alternatives.

Double standard. By contrast, many schools require their students to sign “responsible use contracts” detailing the requirements that they are expected to follow when using school technologies, which many describe as a “privilege.” Never included in these “contracts” are the requirements that schools and EdTech platforms agree to follow to protect students in return. Such illusory agreements are unconscionable.

A dangerous lesson. What are we teaching young people when we show them that their consent is meaningless; that their consent can be overridden by commercial interests; or that their consent can be coerced by threatening to withhold the public education to which they are entitled? Children deserve better and a healthy society demands it.

Further Reading

Further reading:

School Mobile Apps Student Data Sharing Behavior. ISL (May 2021)

K-12 EdTech Benchmark Findings Part II. ISL. (July 2023)

“How Dare They Peep into My Private Life?” Children’s Rights Violations by Governments that Endorsed Online Learning During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Human Rights Watch (May 25, 2022).

The State Student Privacy Report Card. The Network for Public Education (NPE) & the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy (January 2019).