Read Fine Print
on Learning Apps, Experts Warn
To safeguard student data privacy, districts need to pay more attention
to the service agreements for educational online applications.
By Sarah D. Sparks
March 28, 2017
From math games to study skills, the potential use of educational
online applications has exploded in schools—but so has the potential
for problems if school staff members don't read the fine print on the
The industry-analyst firm Technavio predicts the education app market
will continue to grow at a compound annual rate of more than 28 percent
through 2020, to nearly $6 billion. A 2016 survey by the Consortium for
School Networking found nearly all its members (mostly school district
education-technology officials) are using or plan to use digital open
educational resources in the next three years, but fewer than half have
clear policies on how apps are selected and used to safeguard students'
privacy and teachers' intellectual property.
"For a lot of districts, [app security] hasn't come up yet," said Steve
Smith, the chief information officer for the Cambridge, Mass., public
schools. "If they are not thinking about data privacy and they are
being pushed to use a lot of free online resources, there is potential
for a lot of student-data leaks."
The 22,000-student Green Bay district in Wisconsin became aware of the
challenges in 2014, as it began to integrate tablet- and cloud-based
software into classrooms. Diane Doersch, Green Bay's chief technology
and information officer, said that within a few years, she found
herself combing through 10 to 15 app service agreements every month—"It
was taking forever; every review of a terms of service agreement was
taking two hours"—only to find other apps being used informally.
Many districts have lists of approved apps for teachers or students to
use, Smith said, but they often have been vetted by educators or
curriculum experts for their pedagogical quality, not by technology or
legal experts analyzing terms of service. Even in those districts that
do vet apps holistically, it's tough to keep on top of changes and
updates in approved lists of hundreds or thousands of apps.
A 2016 study led by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University
compared the written privacy policies of nearly 18,000 free apps
targeted to children to the actual computer code that ran the
applications. It found that out of more than 9,000 apps that had a
policy said the app did and what the code revealed that it actually did.
Among the most common sins were those of omission: companies that
collected location or time-on-task data without disclosing that
information. For example, more than 40 percent of the apps collected
location information, and 17 percent shared data with other companies
without saying so in their privacy policies.
"It's great to have innovative schools and teachers taking advantage of
all these tools, but they have to know what they are getting into,"
Smith said. "A lot of free applications are free for a reason; they are
not just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, they want that
Jim Flanagan, the chief learning-services officer for the International
Society for Technology in Education, an industry group, agreed:
"Nothing is totally free. You are for sale; that's the cost of free."
'Like the Wild West'
Jason Kunze, an intellectual-property lawyer with Nixon Peabody LLP,
who reviews and studies software terms of service agreements, said the
educational-app field is still new enough that there isn't a lot of
standardization, and there are many policies and legal precedents from
the real world that don't translate well to the virtual space, such as
whether a provider can create a profile about students based on their
geographic location or whether a teacher retains rights to a lesson
plan she developed on an app…
Read the rest of the article at Education Week