When the coronavirus pandemic upended traditional ways of teaching, school districts across the country and around the world turned to online learning platforms.
It was a quick pivot. Schools in Miami-Dade County, for example, moved from in-person to fully remote learning in a two-week period that overlapped with spring break, offering what many thought was a temporary solution.
But many of the same platforms used to support teaching during what turned out to be nearly two years of home-based learning tracked students without their knowledge and shared that data with big tech companies like Facebook. and Google, which could monetize student information by selling ads to companies that targeted children, according to a recently released report by advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
In Miami-Dade schools, nearly every online education platform used during remote learning has done so, according to the report.
Researchers analyzed 164 educational apps and websites used in 49 countries, providing the most up-to-date understanding of the impact of these technologies on students while they learned at home.
The results were shared with 13 news outlets around the world, including McClatchy, the Herald’s parent company. The investigative nonprofit, Signals Network, coordinated the consortium, EdTech Exposed, in addition to overseeing additional reports and reviews.
The report found that many or most online platforms in use around the world, including those used in public schools in Miami-Dade County, do the following:
— “Children monitored, secretly and without their parents’ consent”, collecting data on them, their families and what they were doing in class
— Installed tracking technologies that, over time, tracked children’s activities outside of classrooms
– Allowed ad tech companies to access children’s data, which over time could later be sold to “target them with personalized context that follows them around the internet (which) distorts children’s online experiences, but also threatens to influence their opinion and beliefs”
— Few apps made public how outside companies would use the collected information
— Majority of products reviewed “did not offer child-specific data protections”
Of the apps analyzed, the report found that almost 90% were designed to collect and send student information to outside companies, such as Facebook and Google, the researchers found. In total, student information was sent to nearly 200 ad tech companies.
The report did not determine what data was specifically collected and shared, though it did show what data the apps were supposed to collect and where it would be sent, raising concerns.
“In other words, children are monitored in their virtual classrooms and followed long after they leave, outside of school hours and on the Internet,” wrote Hye Jung Han, lead researcher of the report.
Miami-Dade schools used multiple platforms
On March 13, 2020, at the start of the pandemic, the Florida Department of Education mandated the closure of public schools for two weeks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. However, many districts, including Miami-Dade, remained closed for the duration of the school year.
During Miami-Dade’s first week of distance learning, which was the week before Spring Break, the district reported more than 850,000 logins (including duplicates) on learning platforms like Edgenuity and Edmodo, according to the district at the time. Other platforms, such as Zoom and Khan Academy, were also used in spring 2020.
When the district returned for the new year in August 2020, however, it used the controversial K12 learning platform. But after a disastrous start to the school year, the school board voted to cut ties with the platform and instead asked teachers to use Microsoft Teams and Zoom to teach their lessons.
Earlier this school year, the district added Schoology, which is used by about 70,000 students, according to Miami-Dade Schools staff.
All but one of the platforms used by Miami schools – Edgenuity – were included in the global report and posed a risk or violated students’ right to privacy. (A risk, as defined in the report, indicates that an app has a Google Analytics ad tracker.)
For Han, the lead researcher, the forced pivot to online learning “has made it impossible for children to protect themselves by opting for alternative means to access their right to education.”
Steps to Ensure Confidentiality
According to the report, Schoology is designed to collect a user’s unique online identifier, which is then used to create online profiles indicating what that individual may want to buy.
For their part, district staff said the school board signed an agreement with PowerSchool, the app’s developer, which stated that it “will not rent or sell information for marketing purposes or share nor will it sell customer data to third parties for marketing purposes”. says the staff.
Nonetheless, the agreement granted PowerSchool “permission to use, copy, and/or combine with anonymized data.”
For Schoology and other apps, the district underwent a “competitive procurement process” where the app or product was evaluated by technical staff, users and administrators, district staff told the Herald.
Additionally, the version of Schoology used by the district, staff said, is an “enterprise platform customized for Miami-Dade schools and is not a free version” of the app.
Still, the district said it has taken steps to establish safeguards for its students and teachers and will “continue to meet the standards of security and privacy expected of all contracted vendors.”
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