Sold to the Highest Bidder: Lack of Protections Puts the Privacy of Students and their Families at Risk

BOULDER, CO (August 15, 2017) – Digital technologies used in schools are increasingly being harnessed to amplify corporate marketing and profit-making and extend the reach of commercializing activities into every aspect of students’ school lives. In addition to the long-standing goal of providing brand exposure, marketing through education technology now routinely engages students in activities that facilitate the collection of valuable personal data and that socialize students to accept relentless monitoring and surveillance as normal, according to a new report released by the National Education Policy Center.

In Asleep at the Switch: Schoolhouse Commercialism, Student Privacy, and the Failure of Policymaking, the NEPC’s 19th annual report on schoolhouse commercialism trends, University of Colorado Boulder researchers Faith Boninger, Alex Molnar and Kevin Murray examine how technological advances, the lure of “personalization,” and lax regulation foster the collection of personal data and have overwhelmed efforts to protect children’s privacy. They find that for-profit entities are driving an escalation of reliance on education technology with the goal of transforming public education into an ever-larger profit center—by selling technology hardware, software, and services to schools; by turning student data into a marketable product; and by creating brand-loyal customers.

Boninger points out that “policymaking to protect children’s privacy or to evaluate the quality of the educational technology they use currently ranges from inadequate to nonexistent.”

“Schools and districts are paying huge sums of money to private vendors and creating systems to transfer vast amounts of children’s personal information to education technology companies,” explains Molnar. “Education applications, especially applications that ‘personalize’ student learning, are powered by proprietary algorithms, without anyone monitoring how student data are being collected or used.”

Asleep at the Switch documents the inadequacy of industry self-regulation and argues that to protect children’s privacy and the quality of their education, legislators and policymakers need to craft clear policies backed by strong, enforceable sanctions. Such policies should:

  • Prohibit schools from collecting student personal data unless rigorous, easily understood safeguards for the appropriate use, protection, and final disposition of those data are in place.
  • Hold schools, districts, and companies with access to student data accountable for violations of student privacy.
  • Require algorithms powering education software to be openly available for examination by educators and researchers.
  • Prohibit adoption of educational software applications that rely on algorithms unless a disinterested third party has examined the algorithms for bias and error, and unless research has shown that the algorithms produce intended results.
  • Require independent third-party assessments of the validity and utility of technologies, and the potential threats they pose to students’ well-being, to be conducted and addressed prior to adoption.

Additionally, the report authors encourage parents, teachers, and administrators to publicize the threats that unregulated educational technologies pose to children and the importance of allowing disinterested monitors access to the algorithms powering educational software.

Find Asleep at the Switch: Schoolhouse Commercialism, Student Privacy, and the Failure of Policymaking, by Faith Boninger, Alex Molnar, and Kevin Murray, on the web at:
http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/schoolhouse-commercialism-2017

Funding for the Annual Reports on Schoolhouse Commercialism is provided in part by Consumers Union.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: http://nepc.colorado.edu