Will Singapore take similar steps to protect student data privacy?

In Georgia, some high school cafeterias use a biometric identification system to let students pay for lunch by scanning the palms of their hands at check-out counters.

At a New York state elementary school, teachers can use a behaviour-monitoring app to compile information on children who have positive attitudes and those who act out.

In Georgia, some high school cafeterias use a biometric identification system to let students pay for lunch by scanning the palms of their hands at check-out counters.

Across the country, school sports teams are using social media sites for athletes to exchange contact information and game locations. Technology companies collect a vast trove of data about students, touching every corner of their educational lives - with few controls on how those details are used.

California is poised to become the first state to comprehensively restrict how such information is exploited by the growing education technology industry. Its lawmakers passed a Bill last month banning educational sites, apps and cloud services used by schools from selling or disclosing personal information about students from kindergarten through high school; from using the children's data to market to them; and from compiling dossiers on them.

The law is a response to growing parental concern that sensitive information - such as data on learning disabilities, disciplinary problems or family trauma - may be disseminated and disclosed, potentially hampering college or career prospects. Of the state-enacted curbs on such data, California's law is the most wide-ranging. "It's a landmark Bill in that it's the first of its kind in the country to put the onus on Internet companies to do the right thing," said Senator Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who wrote the Bill.

If California Governor Jerry Brown does not act on the Bill, or on a companion student privacy Bill regulating school contracts with education technology vendors, both will become law at the end of this month. Mr James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a children's advocacy and media ratings group in San Francisco, said the Bills were ultimately intended to shore up parents' trust in online learning.

"You can't have an education technology revolution without strong privacy protection for students," said Mr Steyer, whose group spearheaded the passage of Senator Steinberg's bill. "Parents, teachers and kids can now feel confident that students' personal information can be used only for educational achievement."

In a sign of the rapid growth of the education technology industry, even Mr Steyer's group has partnerships with Google, Apple and other software vendors, who distribute the group's ratings of apps and videos for children.

The legislation comes at a time when schools are rushing to introduce everything from online portals which let students see course assignments and send messages to teachers, to reading apps which record and assess a child's every click. Last year, sales of such software for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade reached an estimated US$7.9 billion (S$10 billion), according to the Software and Information Industry Association.

Parents have started challenging the industry's information privacy and security practices.

"Different websites collect different kinds of information that could be aggregated to create a profile of a student, starting in elementary school," said software engineeer Tony Porterfield, a father of two pre-teenage sons in Los Altos, California.

"Can you imagine a college-admissions officer being able to access behavioural tracking information about a student or how they did on a maths app, all the way back to grade school?"

This article was first published on September 17, 2014.
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