There is a lot of talk these days about privacy in this digital age that we live in. Facebook discussing privacy at congressional hearings, use of targeted advertising, and the sale of our personal information is all headline news. This has a direct translation to how we think about technology use in our schools. Are we exposing too much personal information, and how do we manage all of this interconnected data that we now deal with? As educators, we need to make sure that we are considering privacy issues as we integrate more technology and digital resources in the classroom. Let's look at an example.

You've just attended a tech conference and found a cool new tool that you want to try in your classroom. So what can you do to implement this tech safely? Here are a few things to think about as you bring new tech into the classroom:

Consider your unique situation. First, realize that every situation is different. How you are using tech and who you are using it with can make a big difference. Realize that context matters and what makes sense for you may not work for another teacher down the hall. As a creative teacher, you obviously thought of how you were going to use this app in your classroom. So keep context in mind as you put tech into place. Is the software age-appropriate? Is data that you don't want collected being collected? These are questions that should be answered before students start to use the tech.

Involve your tech department. Talk to your tech staff about implementing your new find. Make sure there are not any school policies or network issues before you try to put something in place that is incompatible with your school infrastructure. I have seen numerous teachers buy something to use in the classroom and try to install it only to find that there are logistical reasons that prevent the tech from doing what they want it to, or the tech just doesn't work at all. Unknowingly violating a school policy is not going to end well, either.

Legal compliance. We have several federal laws that cover the collection and use of personal information that also need to be considered before implementing your new tech in the classroom. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) deals with the rights of students, and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) deals with children under the age of 13. In addition, there may be other state-specific laws, like California's Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (SOPIPA). Most educators I speak with are aware of federal privacy laws but are not really sure what compliance means from the classroom perspective.

Since these privacy laws govern the use of personal information collected from children and students in your classroom, it is a good idea to learn more about FERPA and COPPA in their entirety at least once. You can learn more about COPPA and FERPA in our new privacy training video (registration required). This 45-minute interactive online course for educators introduces the topic of student online privacy and offers concrete best practices for managing the risks to students. It includes specific tools and methods for assessing the privacy and security of products commonly used in the classroom, and it supports teachers in mitigating the risk of student data being compromised.

Age restrictions. What are the age restrictions in the privacy policy? If these restrictions say no minors or no one under that age of 13, be aware that allowing students under the stated age to use this tech in the classroom could cause problems for you down the road.

Student interactions. Does the app allow users to interact with other users, either in the same class or school or outside the school? If so, can this feature be disabled? Consider whether these interactions are appropriate. There are times where we want students to interact with each other and the instructors, but they should not be able to talk to strangers or adults. Does the app vendor monitor student social interactions and/or student-created content? While using technology in the classroom, students should feel free to explore new content and ideas, but the teacher still needs to be in control. The younger the student, the more control is appropriate to prevent exposure to age-inappropriate content or potentially harmful interactions like cyberbullying. Knowing who has control of the conversations and content is an important consideration when deciding whether to bring new tech into the classroom.

Publicly shared personal information. Does the app allow users to share their profile or personal information publicly or with other users? If so, can this feature be disabled?

Reading all of these policies and understanding what they mean can be a very time-consuming and difficult process but not an impossible task with support. Fortunately, there are tools to help. Common Sense has an entire privacy initiative devoted to helping parents and teachers navigate school privacy and has detailed privacy evaluations of many of the most popular apps used in classrooms today. These evaluations can help provide more information about the privacy practices of the app you wish to use in the classroom, so you can make a more informed decision about whether to use it in your school situation.

Stay innovative, and stay safe.

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.