Learn what teachers need to know about this important law.

Jeff Knutson | October 25, 2018

The Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act, more commonly known as COPPA, is a law dealing with how websites, apps, and other online operators collect data and personal information from kids under the age of 13.

COPPA has a number of requirements, but some key ones are that tech companies making apps, websites, and online tools for kids under 13 must:

  • provide notice and get parental consent before collecting information from kids;
     
  • have a "clear and comprehensive" privacy policy;
     
  • and keep information they collect from kids confidential and secure.

(Source: Complying with COPPA: Frequently Asked Questions)

For a more detailed, yet still accessible, overview of the law, you can also check out EdWeek's "COPPA and Schools: The (Other) Federal Student Privacy Law, Explained." The article gets into the somewhat confusing and contentious issue of whether or not schools can stand in for kids' parents when giving consent. In short, schools can grant COPPA consent if -- here's the tricky part -- the tool is used solely for an educational purpose. As the FTC explains in its COPPA FAQs, the information collected must be "for the use and benefit of the school, and for no other commercial purpose." And it can often be hard to tell exactly where that line is drawn.

In addition to knowing when teachers and schools can consent on behalf of parents, teachers and schools should also follow other best practices with respect to COPPA: conducting appropriate due diligence in vetting products, and providing appropriate information to parents (such as the names of sites or services it has consented to on behalf of parents, and those sites and services' information practices).

Beyond COPPA's parental consent issue, it's important to know that even though the law specifically regulates technology companies, teachers and schools aren't off the hook when it comes to understanding the law and its intent.

COPPA was originally enacted in 1998 -- 20 years ago! Technology has changed a lot during that time. And the technologies that kids use both on their own and in school are no exception. Innovative teachers -- many of whom tend to be early adopters of new tech -- are likely to try out tools that haven't been made specifically for kids or haven't been made with educational use in mind. Along with innovative teaching comes the responsibility to understand how our students' data is being collected and used.

What can teachers do?

1. Know your school's policies on adopting new technologies and follow them. Does your school or district have an approved list of apps and sites for student use? Chances are, students' data privacy issues were a big part of the decision to approve -- or not approve -- a tool.

2. Choose your classroom tech wisely.

  • Stick to tools designed with education in mind, especially if kids are going to sign up and create accounts. Products that commercialize student learning are not recommended.
     
  • When you bring new tech into your classroom, be mindful about how the tools ask kids to sign up, enter personal information, or share anything online -- and choose products that minimize and avoid unnecessary information collection.
     
  • Always provide information to parents about what tools you're using in the classroom.
     
  • Avoid apps, games, or websites that seem focused on advertising.
     
  • Be cautious with tools that claim to be for education but are also aimed at consumers or the business world.

3. Not sure about a technology tool? Common Sense's privacy evaluations can help. These evaluations for many of the most popular edtech tools identify and explain the privacy risks in ways that are easy to understand.

Editor's note: This article has been updated from the original version, which was published on December 21, 2017.