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Are you privacy literate?

Five questions to ask before using a digital tool with students.

6 min read


Are you privacy literate?


Online privacy is a new literacy that educators and students need to learn and practice. But what should teachers consider before adopting a digital tool?

Below are the top five questions teachers should ask themselves when vetting new tools and platforms; these are the questions that tend to elicit the most red flags. You’ll find the answers to these questions in privacy policies and terms of use documents. As a rule, you won’t have to apply these questions to tools provided by your school for institution-wide use, such as Google Drive or your learning management system. These tools have already been vetted by the school and/or district.

Does the product collect Personally Identifiable Information? Personally identifiable information—or PII as it’s known—is data that’s tied to an student’s name or ID number. The relevant section in a privacy policy will be called something like “Information We Collect from You.” If the service collects your name and email address, that’s information needed to create an account, so that’s not alarming. Other commonly collected information include the following:

  • Usage information that includes interactions with a website’s or product’s services
  • Device information such as unique device identifiers
  • Operating system information
  • Internet service provider
  • IP address
  • Dates and times of your log-ins and requests

Does the vendor scrub PII from deleted accounts? Say you decide to stop using a service or if a family decides that they’re not comfortable with their child using that service. When students completely delete their accounts, the vendor is required by federal regulations to scrub all the PII. But if their documents do not explicitly state that they do, you’re taking the risk that they may not.

Does the vendor share information they collect? With whom? Vendors may share information with third-party service providers that help them help them with cloud storage, data management, or consult with them on improving their product. Someone needs to look through the privacy policies of each of those third-party services to make sure that they follow school-approved privacy conditions.

That can be a huge task and it’s why no district should require teachers to vet their own apps. This should be the responsibility of whoever is assigned to do vetting in your IT or legal department. But this helps you understand why sometimes it takes a while for an app to be vetted.

The privacy policy may also say that the company will disclose your personal information without notice if required to do so by law (this is standard). If they say something like “…or in the good faith belief that such action is necessary,” that’s a little looser and might be something you want to consider.

What are the age restrictions? This information is commonly in the terms of use. The service may state that it does not knowingly collect or use PII from children under the age of 13. This particular guideline is an indication that the service may not be compliant with Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which controls what information can be collected from children under 13.

If the service does say that users under 13 can use it, they are likely to be COPPA compliant in the way they collect and store and preserve information. When the terms say that users under 13 must get the consent of a parent or guardian, the school might be able to step in and give permission. But this would be something you’d have to review with the school officials who do the vetting.

Does the product display targeted ads? It’s against federal regulations to display targeted ads within web sites, games and apps that target children who are under 13. If an online service does this, they are no longer considered educational and they can no longer have that designation. A service with targeted ads collects PII so that it can select ads that will draw in each individual user, which is a distraction from educational work.

Teach students to be privacy savvy

Fear of data privacy laws has compelled many schools and teachers to say no to tools that students suggest. I recommend, instead, that we work with students and teach them digital data privacy literacy.

Start by expressing interest in the suggested tool. Then ask them some of the above questions to help them figure out whether the tool is collecting their PII. For instance, does it say anything about collecting information about location, contacts, IP address, operating system, and the like? Students are usually shocked by how much information that apps and companies are collecting about them.

Next, tell them, “Before I can give you permission to use this as part of our work, I have to run it through our IT department or our legal department. But I’m really excited that you’re excited, and I’m going to get back to you as soon as I can.”

Digital literacy is an essential life skill, so having conversations with students about the tools that they’re excited to use and how they can tell whether it will protect their data is extremely important. Just as we build character education into lessons, it’s important for us to build in these digital literacy conversations whenever appropriate.

Kerry is the assistant principal of teaching and learning at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass. She is also the director of K12 Education for, an internet safety nonprofit based in Palo Alto, Calif. Kerry is an EdSurge columnist and also writes for her own blog, Start With a Question, which can be found at She is co-author of The Educator’s Guide to Student Data Privacy. She has been a middle and high school educator in public and private schools for 16 years and is also a keynote speaker, writer, and professional learning facilitator sought after by schools, districts, and conferences nationwide. Kerry can be found on social media at @KerryHawk02.

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