Educational websites and apps commonly used by teachers across the province could be putting students’ personal information at risk, Ontario’s privacy commissioner warns.
“There is a definite growth in online educational tools that are available to teachers and schools. Many of them are very valuable in terms of teaching, communications with kids and parents, assessment and evaluation — but like anything that’s online, there are always associated risks that need to be addressed,” said Brian Beamish in an interview Tuesday.
His office is so concerned that it has been working with boards to alert educators to be aware of security issues with these popular online services.
While boards typically have a list of main approved digital learning services used across schools — such as Google Apps or Office 365 — there are so many out there, and new ones constantly coming on the market “. . . our concern was more that teachers may take it upon themselves to use a tool or have kids sign up for tools without thinking what those risks are.”
The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has been working with the Ontario Association of School Business Officials to create an information pamphlet. The association also has a video for boards that cautions that when using other services — such as photo-sharing sites or platforms to post homework or quizzes — teachers need to think twice.
Student privacy has been a huge concern in a number of U.S. states, with California the first to enact strict legislation ensuring that online education services only collect certain information on any minor — covering students from kindergarten to Grade 12 — and that such information can’t be shared, compiled or sold.
Here in Ontario, Beamish said privacy legislation is more than adequate, but parents and teachers need to be better informed, in particular to ensure digital services used aren’t “over-collecting” data.
“The main concern is that the information is being used for purposes that go beyond the educational purposes, and it’s going on to other markets,” said Beamish. “It’s a potentially rich source for companies — collecting contact information for kids, an indication of their age.
“They should only be collecting the kinds of information from children or parents that they need to deliver the service. That may be email addresses or what grade the kids are in, and some contact information, but they shouldn’t be going beyond that.”
In the video made for boards, teachers are encouraged to think about why they are using the tool, and if they do, never to use students’ full names — initials are fine — and are discouraged from posting photos or videos showing kids’ faces.
And if using sites where colleagues or parents are also given access, to keep in mind that “when you give more people access to more information, you need to be cautious about what you share.”
In Peel, director of education Tony Pontes sends a letter to families at the start of the school year, saying “we believe that it is important to encourage and support the use of technology for instructional, assessment and evaluation practices to improve the educational outcomes for our students . . . we are providing notice to parents/guardians that some personal information belonging to students may be collected, retained and disclosed by third parties managing Internet-based programs and applications used by our staff and students.”