Federal digital privacy proposal restricts use of student data

While protecting students' privacy, the act also aims to give enough freedom for companies to conduct research

Companies that collect student data would be barred from using or selling it for anything other than educational purposes, under a law proposed in January by President Barack Obama. Called the Student Digital Privacy Act, it would also prevent companies from using data to target advertising to students.

The legislation is modeled on a comprehensive law passed in California last September. Some 36 states considered 110 student privacy bills in 2014, but California’s law is unique because it legislates education vendor activity in schools, says Paige Kowalski, vice president of policy and advocacy at the Data Quality Campaign.

While protecting students’ privacy, the act also aims to give enough freedom for companies to conduct research initiatives to improve student learning outcomes, and to continuously improve the effectiveness of their learning technology products.

“There have been many concerns raised about third-party vendors in schools and what kind of protections are in place,” says Kowalski, whose nonprofit organization promotes the effective use of student data. “It’s a natural evolution for the federal government to use this act to both reexamine current regulations and come up with new ones.”

Ensuring security without stifling valuable research will be key to developing this law, says Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN. “Now that student data protection has been raised to the federal level, it’s gaining momentum and we want to make sure Congress passes a law in a thoughtful way,” Krueger says. “We don’t want it to end a lot of good things that we can do with data.”

While this proposal moves forward, school administrations should focus on being transparent with parents and the community about what data is being collected and the systems used, says Kowalski.

“It’s really important to respond in a simple, non-technical way when parents have questions,” she says. “All administrators and staff also need to be on the same page when it comes to their role in protecting student data.”

After seeking bipartisan support for the Student Digital Privacy Act, the bill is expected to be introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives within the next several weeks.

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