"Facebook: The privacy saga continues" by opensource.com is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

About Privacy and those Terms of Service…

Most parents worldwide have, in the past 10 or so business days, received a note similar to the following from administrators at their children’s schools:

“Dear Parents, Due to the difficult circumstances we face in this global pandemic our school has made the difficult decision to move our school into e-learning. During this time, we would like to use online tools to help continue your child’s education. Please look for an email with a Google Form where you can request a device for your student to use at home. We will send a Chromebook for students in grades 4-8, if you would find it helpful, for your child to use at home. Please note that these devices are monitored and filtered by the school.”

In addition, I am certain that there have been messages from many teachers to help parents make sense of the disparate curricular tools and resources they lean on to teach their children:

During this time we will continue to use [math personalized program] and [reading personalized program] and the Google Classrooms your child is already familiar with. In addition, I have created a classroom on [insert new app or program] for us. I do need your help to set up an account for your child as a learner and to give permission to use the site. Once students are added to my class, I can assign lessons and practice there to streamline things. This will be especially helpful if your child is unable to join in on a Zoom session.”

I assure you that each and every teacher is doing their best to help soften the blows the pandemic-initiated changes have thrust upon you and your children. I trust all teachers and administrators are trying to accomplish great things with very little lead time, and under great stress. Many teachers have not had the good fortune to have had professional development around the tools and pedagogical practices that are effective when implementing a learning experience that is supposed to be, at its best, entirely digital. Those that have had more lead time and the good fortune of good training ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic are able to pull a whole lot together in ways that are sensible for parents and children alike.

Apart from learning for the first time that the Zoom mic and camera on means you can’t take Zoom into the bathroom with you, and that it’s wise to be aware of when there is a call or camera on in your home, parents also need to know that Zoom my share your information to “improve your advertising experience…Sharing Personal Data with the third-party provider while using these tools may fall within the extremely broad definition of the “sale” of Personal Data…Google may use this data to improve its advertising services for all companies who use their services” (see Zoom Privacy Policy). Some schools may have K-12 accounts, which are markedly more private and secure that those used by most people in the regular work from home world. But, given the reality of this pandemic, some schools may be relying on teachers’ personal accounts, because even hospitals have allowed such extreme measures in this time of crisis, despite previous regulations prohibiting non-HIPPA approved tools such as Google Hangouts, Facetime, and Skype for telehealth services.

I personally don’t want my kids’ teachers to hear us argue or, worse, fart. And I want to protect my children from being the laughing stock of the Internet should they make a juvenile mistake during a school sanctioned activity or a Zoom recess. So, I had the conversation with my children tonight and showed them a few horribly embarrassing things captured in the university world via Zoom plus social media (e.g., portions of Zoom captured on another device TikTok). They get it now, but not all parents are aware of this possibility. I wonder: is it at least in part the school’s responsibility to be educating the kids and parents about this?

Also, parents are being asked to create their children accounts for third-party content providers so that schools can push content that already exists to children. I see some wisdom here–the wheel exists, let’s use it–there is little sense in recreating curriculum and response systems that were designed, user tested, and launched for this exact purpose, yet I was less than enthusiastic as I was prompted to click on the “agree” button in my most recent foray into third-party educational content terms of service.

In that moment, amidst the weekend that felt more like a weekday because my husband and I were trying to make up all the work we had shifted from the school days as it was necessary to support our three children in their e-learning, I paused and thought “I wonder if parents are aware of how much information they are about to provide this company and where that information will go.” I took the time to carefully read the terms of service. Even if a parent requests that their child’s account is deleted, the company of this particular content provider can retain their child’s data and can de-identify it and still use it. This includes chat transcripts, art work–anything the user puts into their system, basically. Forever.

When schools initiate accounts for children, they assume the role of the parent and provide their consent for the child’s data to be used per the third-party’s terms of service. I’ve always been a little leery of this, but lean on allowing it for my family because the vast majority of the data these third party content creators collect emanates from the schools. Now we are giving away more than school data. They are tracking what we do at home on our own devices and with our own IP addresses. I honestly am not up to anything suspect or illegal, but it makes me uncomfortable to have my life open for the data teams in those third-party content companies and those of whomever this company sells their business to in the future (yes, they pass off your data–listen to this podcast). I don’t think the vast majority of parents know this.

As schools request parents to create more and more third-party accounts for our children who are now e-learning, ought they also be obligated to tell parents to consider carefully the terms of service and privacy? Ought the schools be obligated to provide a reasonable alternative for children whose parents don’t want to give their home’s or child’s data away? I don’t believe schools aren’t doing this because they are keeping secrets. I just honestly believe that this is quite an abstract and complex thing that is not readily dealt with while trying to just keep the plates spinning.

Spinning Plates GIF - Spinning Plates GIFs
e-Learning feels a lot like this, doesn’t it?
(Image source: https://tenor.com/search/spinning-plates-animated-gif-gifs)

The legalese of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) may be too much to put on teacher’s and parents’ plates right now, but here is a suggestion that can be copied and pasted into these letters schools, teachers, and administrators are rolling out en masse:

“Please note that ______[name of school or teacher] has elected to utilize _____[app or program] to facilitate your child’s e-learning. We encourage your family to carefully read _____[insert name of third-party content]’s terms of service [insert link] and policies about your child’s security and privacy [insert link] while using ______[name of app or program] for e-learning. If you have questions about any of these you may reach out to ____[person’s name], _______[role] with them. Any family that does not wish to agree to the terms of service will be offered a reasonable alternative so that their child will be able to continue learning at home. If you agree to the terms of service, we ask that…”

And, if any teachers or administrators are reading: thanks for all you are doing and for your grace and humility in doing so. It is not easy. I think reminding children that the video calls they are now participating in daily are not truly private–they certainly are not as private as the conversations that happen within the walls of their schools– and that they are not meant to be recorded or shared could be an impactful practice. Such reminders each day at the start of any video call could go miles to protect these kiddos and their families.

See also:

Peddy, A.M. (2017). Dangerous Classroom “App”-titude: Protecting Student Privacy from Third-Party Educational Service Providers. https://digitalcommons.law.byu.edu/elj/vol2017/iss1/5/

About the author

Katie Paciga

Katie A. Paciga, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Columbia College Chicago. She studies early language and literacy development and children's media.

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