In K-12 education, online privacy risks vary by school size, location, student race and income levels, according to a recent report from the nonprofit Internet Safety Labs (ISL).
The 33-page report, Privacy Inequity in EdTech: A Demographic Analysis of U.S. K-12 EdTech, is based on a 2022 analysis of 13 schools in each of the 50 states plus Washington, D.C. Researchers examined websites for all 663 schools, along with 1,772 unique apps either required or recommended for school use.
Chief among the findings: 91 percent of all schools analyzed in the study had websites that used trackers — bits of code originating from marketing analytics functions and/or advertisements on websites that collect browsing habit data and potentially users’ personal information. All schools with majority Black student populations contained trackers on their school websites, and none of the lowest-income schools (average student household income under $39,000 annually), which largely encompass the American Indian and Native Alaskan populations, had a system for vetting approved apps and technology, according to the report.
Twenty percent of school websites also had advertisements, which ISL Executive Director Lisa LeVasseur found especially worrisome.
“Ads are a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of raising revenue,” she said, adding that public schools are nearly twice as likely as private schools to have advertising on their websites. “It can’t possibly be substantial for most of these schools. Those risks are unacceptable for children.”
According to the report, lower-income schools that have less access to technology and subsequently fewer apps also have the highest exposure to behavioral ads that follow users based on their web-browsing history.
“Those students are having a totally different experience,” LeVasseur said. “That’s a gut punch.”
In the recommendations section, the report advises school leaders to:
- Have at least one full-time software procurement specialist who is responsible for vetting and oversight practices.
- Audit school technology annually.
- Maintain data privacy agreements with vendors.
- Remove digital advertising and advertising trackers from school websites, and, if possible, minimize third-party resources on school websites.
- Publish a comprehensive list of technologies used in schools and make it available to parents and students.
- Hold school community-engagement apps, which typically contain the school’s name but are separate from official school websites and are typically maintained by third-party vendors, to a greater level of scrutiny. These tools usually serve the purpose of relaying school announcements or allowing members of a school community to access content and photos from athletics, arts or social events.
“More ads, more third parties, more risky behavior,” LeVasseur said. “They’re the worst, and they are really ungoverned.”
Her advice to school leaders: If you cannot afford to hire a procurement specialist right away, at least appoint a trusted employee who can get up to speed through professional development opportunities in the ed-tech privacy space.
“Schools are not just dabbling in this anymore,” LeVasseur said. “It can’t just be Uncle Joe’s friend from the school board. Treat software procurement as a professional action in school.”
This is ISL’s third report from the 2022 research of 663 schools. A report in June 2023 noted that 96 percent of apps used in schools share student information with third parties, and that schools are not communicating with parents about potential privacy concerns.