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Education Dept. Talks Tough on Student Data Privacy

Education Dept. Talks Tough on Student Data Privacy
February 27, 2014 7:01AM

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Seeking to help schools better protect students' privacy, the U.S. Department of Education is sharing new guidelines on the proper use, storage and security of the massive amounts of data being generated by new, online educational resources. Private information collected by outside services could be shared publicly, it's feared.

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The Education Department on Tuesday encouraged school districts to use more scrutiny to protect student privacy when using online educational services.

Online companies provide services such as the collection of school lunch money, portals for homework assignments and sites to watch video demonstrations. Concerns have been raised that private information collected by the companies could be shared publicly or used to market products and services to students or their families.

Districts often have contracts with companies, but online services also can be provided without a district's direct knowledge. For example, a teacher could direct students to a Web site to retrieve homework assignments without notifying school administrators.

A patchwork of laws spells out how students' data can be used, but the laws can be difficult for districts to interpret. Some privacy advocates say laws haven't kept up with evolving technology, and there's been a flurry of activity at the state and federal level to address the issue.

In guidance issued Tuesday, the Education Department encouraged districts to look closely at what online services are already in use within their schools. The guidelines suggest that districts develop procedures to evaluate and approve educational services and, when possible, use a written contract or legal agreement. They also spell out applicable federal laws.

Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, said the new guidance doesn't go far enough in providing applicable advice to districts. He said districts are dealing with complex questions, such as whether to take advantage of free educational programs available online and deciding what programs should be downloaded on tablets and other devices increasingly used in schools.

"I think if you are a district it is easy to be confused about what your obligations are," Levin said.

James Steyer, the chief officer of the advocacy group Common Sense Media, praised the recommendations and said they come at an important time as schools look for ways to expand learning using technology.

"It's still the wild, wild west out there, but it can be fixed," Steyer said.

The guidance comes one day after Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at a student privacy data conference and encouraged technology companies to do more to ensure student data is secure.

"There's plenty of energy, in this room and around the country, for stronger regulation of your work. Let me say this clearly: It is in your interest to police yourselves before other do," Duncan said.

© 2014 Associated Press/AP Online syndicated under contract with NewsEdge. All rights reserved.

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