123rf_Eye_17948517Obama recently took to the bully pulpit again, this time proposing what he called the Student Digital Privacy Act, saying, “If we’re going to be connected, then we need to be protected.” The act’s purpose is “to prevent companies from selling sensitive student information collected in schools and using such data to engage in targeted advertising to children.” In other words, all that information being collected about our kids should be used for educational purposes only, not exploitation and marketing..

After all, says Alison DeNisco, news editor at District Administration Magazine, “When students use technology in the classroom, every keystroke creates a trail of digital information.”

And, unfortunately, that information trail isn’t mined solely for educational purposes, despite the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, aka FERPA. On the books since 1974, it was established “to protect the privacy of student education records and give parents certain rights with respect to the children’s educational records.” Yes, privacy was a concern even before our lives were stored in a so-called cloud.

And, cautions consultant and writer Laura H. Chapman, “It is not widely known that in 2009, USDE [U.S. Department of Education] modified the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act so that student data—test scores, health records, learning issues, disciplinary records—can be used for education studies without parental consent. Moreover, a 2012 issue brief from USDE outlined a program of data mining and learning analytics in partnership with commercial companies.”

And so it goes, loopholes and all, which brings us back to Obama’s Student Digital Privacy Act. Though few details have been revealed, it’s apparently modeled on the Student Online Personal Information and Protection Act (SOPIPA) signed by California’s Governor Jerry Brown in September, 2104. Among its provisions, online educational services operators are:

1. “Prohibited from selling and using student data and using such information to target advertising to students or to ‘amass a profile’ on students for a non-educational purpose.”

2. “Required to maintain adequate security procedures and delete information when requested by a school or district.”

On top of all that is the Student Data Privacy Pledge, a project developed by the Software and Information Industry Association and the Future of Privacy Forum. Although voluntary, Obama said, “It’s the right thing to do. And if you don’t join this effort, then we intend to make sure that those schools and those parents know you haven’t joined this effort.” As a result, more than 100 companies have now signed on, including such biggies as Microsoft and Amazon.

One major holdout was Google, which didn’t take the pledge until last month. And that’s a big deal because Google is so big and now says, “Protecting the privacy and security of all our users, including students, is a top priority.” The YouTube-based educational Khan Academy has now also taken the pledge.

By signing on, these companies must keep their privacy practices transparent, while also vowing …

• To be accountable for how they use data pulled from student work.
• Not to sell student information beyond what’s needed for educational/school purposes.
• Not to use the personal information gleaned for targeted advertising.
• To use student data only for authorized educational purposes.
• Not to build personal student profiles except to support educational needs.

Stay tuned.

The $8 billion educational technology industry says all this fuss is unnecessary, while others complain that these measures don’t go far enough. That includes countless parents who are concerned about what’s actually being done with such information as their children’s ability/disability status, disciplinary records, preferences, test performances, and academics.

They want Obama to require that companies directly provide parents with lists of what they’re collecting about their children, how that information is used to rank and categorize them, and how all that affects their treatment in school as a result.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and co-founder of Parents Across America, is troubled by the many loopholes in SOPIPA, which is the basis for Obama’s newly proposed Student Data Privacy Bill. In fact, she goes so far as to say, “We see this as a very weak proposal, actually, and it doesn’t stop a lot of what we are concerned about … We don’t want student information sold for any reason without parental consent.”

Think she’s right, or is all this much ado about nothing like some in the ed tech industry would have us believe?