Use these simple tips to protect online privacy in your classroom.

teacher meeting

Online privacy is a moving target: Between the various laws (FERPA, PPRA, COPPA), the opaque language of privacy policies, and constant privacy breaches, it can be an anxiety-provoking prospect. And depending on your role in education, there are varying degrees of oversight in terms of what edtech to use. At the end of the day, though, protecting students' online privacy is everyone's responsibility.

If you're in a role where you make decisions about investigating and adopting edtech that involves student information, we recommend that you start with this one-hour course that covers the ins and outs of protecting student privacy. If you're a classroom teacher, consider the three basic questions below.

What student data are you sharing?

  • Are you or your students inputting students' personal information, including their age, grade, address, email address, etc.?
  • Are students creating original content that's stored on the platform or within the tool?
  • Does the tool ask questions of students, who have to input answers, or communicate with others?
  • If it's a free platform, is personal or usage data a source of revenue for the company, or is it funded some other way?

The ideal: Many platforms require some kind of student data, as outlined above. Ideally, the tool won't ask for any more information than is absolutely necessary for the tool to function, and the policy should state that the developers allow students and schools to maintain ownership and control of their content. In terms of funding, a free platform subsidized by partners/philanthropy is less likely to sell data, especially if it's made for schools. You can always check our privacy ratings, which include evaluations of data collection practices.

What happens to that data after it's shared?

  • How and where does the tool store information?
  • Do they share information with third parties? If so, under what circumstances?
  • Are students personally identifiable?
  • Is student data used for targeted advertising?
  • Does the tool itself include ads or purchases that students could potentially click on?

The ideal: Whatever student data is collected should be securely stored, and data shouldn't be shared or sold. In most cases, though, there's some language that allows for data sharing under specific circumstances or with affiliated companies that use the data to improve how the tool functions. In the case of kids, you want to make sure that data isn't shared or sold for advertising purposes, and language around "improving the experience" can be iffy. And, ideally, students should only be personally identifiable for teachers to track student progress, and the school should retain control of that data. In terms of free tools that contain ads, it's best to avoid them if you can. Our privacy ratings analyze how companies store student data. Either way, you can use these platforms as an opportunity to discuss how they function—and how they make money—as you cover the importance of media literacy skills!

Are there settings that can make it safer?

  • Are there ways to opt out of data collection?
  • Are there settings that allow students to allow access to certain features only when the tool is in use? 
  • What other limitations are available to set within the tool or on the device?

The ideal: You've probably been asked to check your cookie selections on sites, where you click a box to agree to the terms and privacy policy—or limit them. Those choices can matter, and so especially when it comes to your students. Whenever there are checkpoints, make sure you know what you're agreeing to. And then dig into the settings: Are there ways to limit data collection and ensure student safety?

More resources

Lessons for privacy protection to use with students





Fun privacy video!

Check out this video (made by our own Steve Garton) about the "creepy factor" of data tracking, and use with students when you want to enjoy some musical levity! 

(Pressing play on the YouTube video below will set third-party cookies controlled by Google if you are logged in to Chrome. See Google's cookie information for details.)

Christine Elgersma

Christine Elgersma is Senior Editor, Learning Content, Strategy which means she manages the newsletter about learning, edits writing about learning, and loves to learn. Before coming to Common Sense, she helped create ELA curriculum for a K-12 app and taught the youth of America as a high school teacher, a community college teacher, a tutor, and a special education instructional aide for about 18 years. Christine is also a writer, primarily of fiction and essays, and loves to read all manner of books. When she's not putting on a spontaneous vaudeville show with her daughter, Christine loves nature, music, and almost any form of dark chocolate.

Steve G.

Steve Garton is Senior Manager for Common Sense Education. He is an expert in meaningful technology integration, particularly in large-scale initiatives. He supports districts with professional development planning, program monitoring, student assessment, and communication across stakeholder groups.

Prior to joining Common Sense, Steve was the Coordinator of Educational Technology for the Maine Department of Education. At the Maine Department of Education, he led the professional development programs for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, the state’s 1:1 program that supported over 12,000 teachers and administrators. As a member of the department’s leadership team, he provided policy support and leadership.

Steve was co-chair of the Smarter Balanced Consortium Technology Approach Committee and led the initial technology readiness and assessment infrastructure work. Additionally he served as a member of the advisory council of the Maine School and Library Network, Maine’s statewide broadband network serving K-12 schools and public libraries.

Steve has served as a technology director at the county level (Trumbull County, Ohio) and a classroom teacher and technology coordinator of the Sharon City School District in Pennsylvania.

Steve holds a Bachelor’s degree in piano performance from Eastern Illinois University, a Bachelor’s in math education from Slippery Rock University and a Masters in educational technology from Youngstown State.