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Digital classroom tools raise privacy concerns

Tracey Novick (left) helped her daughters Aisling (center), Mara (right), and Rhiannon with homework in Worcester. Novick seeks information on companies’ use of student data.Zack Wittman For The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

WASHINGTON — Many of the nation’s schools lack restrictions on the unprecedented student data amassed by education technology companies, an omission that has worried parents and prompted legislative proposals from statehouses to Congress.

This data collection transforms how teachers interact with their students and gives researchers a new understanding of how youths learn. But some fear it comes at a cost, allowing firms to profit from sensitive information.

These tensions continue to build as the federal government encourages technology in schools, reinforcing an ongoing struggle between privacy assurances and digital innovation.

“Parents are right to ask, ‘Who holds the information to this website and what are they gathering about my kid?’ ” said Tracy Novick, a Worcester School Committee member who limits the online activities of her three school-age daughters at home.


Fewer than 7 percent of districts that contract with cloud-service providers restrict the sale or marketing of student information, according to a report by Fordham Law School’s Center on Law and Information Privacy, and 20 percent fail to create policies that govern online services at all.

Vendors have not been caught reselling student information, but experts warn it could happen without notice.

The Boston School Department writes privacy provisions into its contracts and prohibits the use of student data for any unrelated purpose. But rules vary among districts and don’t always address data culled through online tutoring assignments or research applications.

“There are companies out there with very laudable goals about what they are trying to accomplish for improving education,” said Joel Reidenberg, the Fordham center’s founding academic director, “and then there are companies whose practices and goals are first and foremost their financial gain. It’s hard to figure out which is which.”

Google has agreed to stop scanning students’ Gmail accounts for advertising reasons after users sued the company. The search giant accessed the information through its free Apps for Education service.


The Federal Trade Commission intervened this May in the bankruptcy case of Boston-based ConnectEDU, which uses interactive tools to help students choose careers. It warned the proposed sale of 20 million student records could leave the information up for grabs. And inBloom, a nonprofit funded partly by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, shut down this spring after complaints it would create a student database ripe for identity theft.

The Department of Education, meanwhile, has worked to clarify the main federal law on student privacy, passed in an era of typewriters and paper records. But the agency’s latest guidelines on whether such protections extend online begins with, “It depends.”

States have drafted more than 100 bills on student data privacy this year, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that promotes effective use of data in education.

New York created a chief privacy officer. Idaho required the state board of education to submit annual reports on data collected. California’s state legislature last month passed the toughest crackdown yet on the sale of student data.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has emphasized that state and federal laws protect student data. And some districts, such as Boston and Cambridge, hire chief information officers to monitor the proper use of technology.

Parents and regulators fear such practices aren’t enough to tackle a boom in the education technology industry, much of it based in Massachusetts.


CB Insights, a venture capital database, ranks the state fourth in funding for education technology startups. Founders of LearnLaunchX, a new ed-tech hub that draws entrepreneurs and education experts, estimate Massachusetts has added 250 education technology companies in recent years.

Companies point to technology’s potential to improve education.

They are “actually measuring what is going on and using that to make school better,” said Aaron Feuer, who cofounded Cambridge-based Panorama Education in 2012 as a college student and has since received $4 million from investors, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The company works to improve feedback between students, parents, and districts.

These kinds of businesses now make it possible to catch a teenager on the verge of dropping out or learn why a middle-schooler can’t comprehend adverbs.

“We don’t want to take away the tools that help teachers,” said Paige Kowalski, the state policy and advocacy director for the Data Quality Campaign.

Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, sought to address concerns in late July when he and Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, unveiled a student privacy bill.

Some groups, including the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, attacked the legislation for not doing enough, and much of the software industry labeled it unnecessary.

The bill aims to update the federal law, known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, through clearer prohibitions against marketing students’ personal information.

“We have to make sure this business of storing and sifting through the records of students is going as fast as students are,” Markey said. “But we also need to ensure there is simultaneously an increase in privacy and security protections.”


Officials have started to take note. The Massachusetts Association of School Committees this summer requested a state breakdown on vendors who access student data.

“What concerned us was we wanted to get the information and we couldn’t,” said MASC executive director Glenn Koocher, who examined the documents after the group’s public records request and found that the contractors — mostly research organizations — were legitimate.

Jessica Meyers can be reached at