4 ways to ensure students are safe using edtech

Lower-income schools are far less likely to vet their education technology, a new report suggests. Here's why that's an issue.

Since the pandemic, K12 schools have witnessed a “technological boom,” so to speak, in the realm of education technology. If you were one of the thousands of educators who attended the National Education Technology Conference in January, you would believe this to be true after walking through the expo hall to sort through edtech vendors and booths as far as the eye can see.

But just how are schools using their newly implemented edtech? More importantly, are there any privacy inequities that exist in these products?

It’s a question researchers at Internet Safety Labs sought to answer in their new report, which is the latest nationwide safety benchmark for edtech products used in K12 schools around the country. Of the 1,722 apps that are either recommended or required by the school or district across the 663 schools sampled in the survey, 1,357 could be measured for privacy risks, including:

  • The number of SDKs (riskiness of the “Software Development Kits) in the app
  • Number of digital advertisements in the app
  • Presence of behavioral ads
  • Presence of large platforms with data monetization business, like Adobe, Amazon, Apple, etc.
  • App usage of WebView APIs

One of the more shocking findings, the authors note, is the lack of technology vetting practices in lower-income schools (where the median family income is $20-$39,000). According to the data, none of the schools in this income stratum performed technology vetting, despite having the highest percentage of apps that contain digital and behavioral ads. Additionally, only 50% of these schools provided devices to students.

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On the other end of the spectrum, 60% of high-income schools ($120,000 and above) vetted their edtech products, the highest rate across all income levels.

Similar to low-income schools, those with American Indian/Alaska Native majorities scored the lowest on listing the technology used by educations, asking for family consent and providing students with devices. The researchers note these disparities are likely caused by an inadequate amount of resources available for technology management and distribution. Its impacts are complex as it limits students’ exposure to certain technology while at the same time putting students at greater risk from the technology that is recommended and/or required at their schools.

“The authors believe that the quality of school vetting varies significantly, due to the relative nascence of privacy requirement and assessments in school technology procurement,” the report reads. “Technology vetting and vendor management are key areas for improvement.”

Recommendations for school leaders

We recommend you take a close look at the report for an in-depth look at some of the extensive recommendations for technology professionals as they relate to app and website safety. In the meantime, the authors suggest schools integrate these four safety practices:

  1. Technology notice: Although schools aren’t required to publish comprehensive technology lists, the researchers call on school leaders to do so “as a matter of practice.” Students and parents ought to know what technology is required or recommended by their schools.
  2. Consent: Similarly, schools aren’t mandated to obtain consent for edtech, and the degree of adaptation in schools across the country reflects that. “In an ideal world, students and parents should have a choice,” the report reads.
  3. Tech vetting: Every school should systematically vet their edtech products, which can reduce students’ exposure to behavioral advertising.
  4. Devices: While most schools are now providing students with their own devices, there’s an “immaturity” of software vendor management by K12 schools. Many devices are preloaded with apps and technologies that still require additional research, so take caution.

“Privacy must not be the price K12 students pay to remain current and competitive with technology,” the report reads. “That does not indeed appear to be the case today.

“The only acceptable solution is to dramatically improve the privacy of technologies recommended and required by schools.”

Micah Ward
Micah Wardhttps://districtadministration.com
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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