My Biggest EdTech Pet Peeve

December 5, 2013 | Posted in: personal reflection

Technology in education is constantly evolving; new digital tools and services are coming out more rapidly than we can keep up! Every time you turn around, there’s another new “cool site” out there promising to be the end-all-be-all in education. The digital shift has allowed for the teacher/student roles to shift significantly: teachers are no longer the keeper of all the information, and students are encouraged and empowered to consume information on just about anything they could ever imagine at an extraordinary rate, and in an unlimited variety of self-driven ways. It’s awesome!

I follow a lot of edtech bloggers, magazines, and online new sources, and attend a handful edtech conferences both physically and virtually each year. One trend that I keep seeing over and over again in all of these professional places is my biggest edtech pet peeve: those who recommend online tools and services for use with students without looking at or knowing about the site’s Terms of Use (TOU) and whether a site complies with federal guidelines or can even be used with students at all. A lot of times I hear a presenter speak about a cool new web tool and have examples of how an elementary classroom used it, completely ignoring that xyz service explicitly states that children under 13 cannot use it. I don’t feel like that models best practices very well, and now an entire room of other educators run off to use xyz with their students without even a thought to Terms of Use.

I know it sounds like a small thing, but I am shocked at how often professionals I follow, or those who present at big educational conferences on behalf of a professional organization, blatantly ignore TOU and requirements under the U.S. federal law called COPPA – the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. It makes me crazy to see sites that have GREAT educational services and tools for kids and who advertise themselves to teachers and the education space and yet their TOU are not friendly for kids under 13. And let’s face it – “children under 13” applies to a whole lot of kids in the K-12 world. I love the enthusiasm of a tech savvy teacher or colleague who finds a neat site and wants to dive right in with their students… but cringe when they’ve started using the site with kids under 13 without being aware of the site’s legal requirements (and their requirements) when being used with students first.

In a nutshell, COPPA is a United States federal law that protects the confidentiality, security, and privacy of children under the age of 13 online. Commercial websites and online services directed at children (i.e. all educational web 2.0 tools!) are not allowed to collect personally identifiable information from children under 13 without disclosing their privacy policy to parents and obtaining parental consent to do so. And while this is a United States federal law, its jurisdiction applies to foreign websites that are directed or accessible by U.S. children as well.

COPPA originally went into effect in April of 2000, but a new update that went into effect this year – on July 1, 2013 – has further stipulations on website owners and includes additional requirements for parental notice and consent, and some of the amended obligations are even more strict than they were previously.

While the exact verbiage of a site’s full Terms of Use can vary from site to site, the basics (have to be) the same at the bare minimum with COPPA compliance in mind. (And just because a site doesn’t comply with COPPA doesn’t make it okay, either!) Some sites do a better job than others outlining exactly what those under 13 who want to use their services must do, and sometimes it’s harder to find the verbiage as it may not be addressed specifically in the TOU, but instead on the site’s Privacy Policy page. Or instead of stating anything about COPPA or “13 and under” explicitly, some sites will more vaguely blanket statement that you must be of legal age to form a binding contract or that the service is not for someone “barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction.” Yes, it can be tricky! Beware that some sites don’t want to deal with the red tape that goes along with complying and proving compliance with COPPA, so they don’t allow children under 13 to use their services under any circumstances just to avoid the whole situation. You may need to look at both the site’s Terms as well as Privacy Policy to get the full scoop.

(One example is Twitter. See how in their TOU they use a generic blanket statement but then address children specifically in their own section of Twitter’s Privacy Policy? By the way, children under 13 cannot sign up or use Twitter services. Period.)

Excerpt from Twitter’s TOU

Excerpt from Twitter’s Privacy Policy

So now you’re thinking… WHAT DO I DO?!

Think of it this way: if an online site, service, or tool has a sign-up requirement, children 13 and under can’t use it, or at least won’t be able to use it right out of the box. You’ll have to see if it’s allowed at all under the site’s terms, or if there’s a way to use it if you seek parental notice and collect consent prior to use. A red flag is the requirement of an email address during the registration process, since an email address is an indicator that personal information will be collected.  And just because a site doesn’t ask for an email address during sign-up doesn’t mean it’s automatically okay for children under 13, though, either… you still always have to look at the Terms. Even if you teach kids over 13, many sites still require all minors (18 and under) to obtain parental consent before use. It all depends on how much red tape the website operator wants to deal with and be responsible for, so your mileage may vary.

Bottom line? There’s a federal law in place for children under 13, which will affect whether those students can use certain sites and services or not. Always read the Terms of Use for every site and service you want to use with kids first. Chances are it will be possible, but will require some leg work ahead of time to ensure the privacy and safety of your students. But it also may not be possible at all. (Like in Twitter’s case, as an example.) Remember that even in situations where you are setting up the accounts for your students – most services still have stipulations due to COPPA that involves you notifying parents of the terms and privacy policy and collecting their consent first, as your account is responsible for student accounts complying, and by signing up, you imply that you’ve already sought parent consent. (So you want to make sure you actually have!)

The excuse that technology moves so fast that we as educators don’t have time to check the TOU of every single site or service just doesn’t cut it anymore. Especially when you teach the younger crowd that is directly affected by this federal law. It has always been a teacher’s professional responsibility to keep kids safe, we all know that. Before the digital shift, this seemed very black and white, but since most classrooms have some kind of online component or access these days, that responsibility has to extend to the online space as well. With a new frontier comes new rules and practices and it sure feels like a whole lot of grey area right now. The best we can do is educate ourselves and try our best to keep up with the rapidly moving pace of technology AND keep kids safe at the same time.

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