Education Dept. issues student data privacy guidance

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The Education Department spelled out ways for schools to protect student data privacy in new guidance released Feb. 25.

Schools and school districts should start with an inventory of all the online educational services they use, the guidance says. It also urges them to establish policies for evaluating online services before schools agree to use them.

"Gone are the days when textbooks, photocopies, and filmstrips supplied the entirety of educational content to a classroom full of students," the guidance says. "Today's classrooms increasingly employ on-demand delivery of personalized content, virtual forums for interacting with other students and teachers, and a wealth of other interactive technologies."

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects students' personal data from unauthorized disclosure. School staff and contractors generally are allowed to obtain access to student data.

Providers of online services typically need contact information for students in order to create accounts for them. Those services also can collect detailed metadata associated with students – how long it takes them to perform certain tasks, or how many attempts they need to solve a problem, for instance.

The guidance recommends that schools and districts stay informed about the many laws, including state and local laws, that could impact their use of online services.

It also urges transparency regarding the collection of student data so that parents and students are aware.

Concerns about student data privacy have grown as new services have entered the classroom. Schools around the world depend on free or inexpensive online services for email and document creation, and privacy advocates have sought to prevent companies from targeting ads at students based on their data.

In California, the state senate is considering a bill that would forbid online services for K-12 schools from sharing data with advertisers. 

For more:
- download the guidance, "Protecting Student Privacy While Using Online Educational Services: Requirements and Best Practices" (.pdf)

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