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My Experience with ISTE and COPPA

ISTE 2016

ISTE 2016 was awesome. The Denver Convention Center is probably my favorite location out of the four ISTE conferences I've attended. The building is easy to navigate and in a great place, downtown Denver. I walked away from ISTE with some great ideas of how to supplement teacher training as well as a taste of the new features Google is offering schools this academic year. I'm excited for the new version of Sites to be launched, Android apps on Chromebooks, as well as some new features within Google Classroom that will certainly make the lives of teachers much simpler. Many of these features will be discussed in future posts. This post is focused on an issue that seems to be regularly ignored within the realm of educational technology. We're talking about the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

What's the Big Deal?

Schools need to follow the rules. That's the simple answer as to why I'm writing this post. We as educators have a responsibility to the community and to students to maintain a high level of  integrity when it comes to legal matters. Online services need to address how they maintain personal information of users under the age of 13 and how they go about protecting the rights of children. Most websites avoid the issue altogether and slap a blanketed protection in their terms of service and privacy policy documents that state that no one under the age of 13 is to utilize their services by any means. However, some services are targeted towards users that are under the age of 13. In those cases, parent permission is required for the creation of accounts. Usually, this process is as simple as gaining that parent permission and having the documentation on hand (see SeeSaw's Terms of Service).

There are some instances where the teacher must jump through some hoops in order for students to gain access to a site legally. Take Scratch for example. In this scenario, Scratch requires that students have a parent create their account as a parent email address is to be used to confirm account creation. This is an interesting topic altogether as teachers have openly admitted in Scratch forums to not have followed through with Scratch's terms and have gone ahead and created accounts for students.
One loophole that I wonder is a possibility is if parents sign off stating that the teacher can utilize his/her teacher email address in order to verify the Scratch account? It makes sense as the parent is fully aware that they are granting permission for the teacher to create the account with the understanding that they can still do the account creation on their own accord. This idea is something I should explore with Scratch's input.

What's COPPA have to do with ISTE?

ISTE is a huge organization. They produce the best of the best as far as ed tech goes. What I do not understand is why there are so many presentations promoting the use of products for elementary students that clearly state in their terms of service and/or privacy policy that users under the age of 13 cannot use it. I"ll give you a couple examples:

Adobe Spark

Adobe Spark was originally introduced as Adobe Voice. I was extremely excited when it launched as it made making photo slideshows with audio super simple to use on iOS devices. The downside? It clearly states that users must be over the age of 13 to use Adobe products. I even recall requesting to Adobe to address this issue and change their legal documentation to make their products usable for users under 13. I don't know how you can get around this clearly stated sentence in their terms of service documentation: 

As I was traveling around poster sessions, I was surprised by the number of elementary teachers promoting the use of Adobe Spark. I shouldn't say I was surprised by the number of teachers having their students use it as it is a great resource, but what surprises me is the fact that ISTE allowed them to do a presentation on it. These teachers are unknowingly promoting illegal activities in their classrooms. If you were to question them on the terms of service of these products, I guarantee you'd get a blank stare. (I know because I asked a few of them.) Wouldn't you think that ISTE would be aware of this issue as they go through the presentation selection process?


I'm a huge fan of Google Apps for Education (GAFE)! That is very evident as I'm a Google Educator Level I and II, Google Certified Trainer, and a Certified Google Apps Administrator. I do struggle with their terms of service. Blogger is part of Google, right? Students can use their GAFE accounts to create a Blogger blog freely, right? This is where it gets a bit confusing because the answer is no.

Google Apps for Education only includes what they call the "Core Services." The Core Services only include Calendar, Contacts, Groups for Business, Drive, Hangouts/Talk, Gmail, Sites, and Vault. All other Google services are considered "Additional Services" and the school district is responsible for turning them on and off according to who can legally access them (users over 13 enter a personal agreement not protected by GAFE).  The Core Services are the only ones that Google discontinues data mining for advertising purposes within a school district. So if a student creates a Blogger blog, their information is susceptible to the data mining process. If a user is under the age of 13, they cannot legally agree to those terms of service. 

So what did I see at ISTE? Fourth-grade teachers telling other teachers how their students can use their GAFE accounts to create their own Blogger blogs for the purpose of writing about their reading. Great idea! I did the same thing six years ago in the classroom, but not with Blogger. I'm sure that the teachers were doing it completely out of ignorance of COPPA and Google's additional services. However, should ISTE be ignorant/ignoring the issue? ISTE ultimately allowed these individuals to present. 

I certainly wish Blogger were part of the core services. If you are a teacher of students over the age of 13, please use it! Blogger is a great platform for students to communicate their learning to a global audience. 

How do we get better?

I truly do not expect teachers to be checking the legal documentation to make sure their students can use certain products. Especially since the legal documentation changes from time to time. What I do expect is for teachers to be at least aware of it. I don't mind checking to see if students can use various products as it seems to have become one of my roles in my school district. Teachers can ask me to do the investigation for them. 

The ISTE presentation selection committee should certainly be aware of the issue. We cannot have presentations that promote schools participating in online activities that are not COPPA compliant. I want to know why this is apparently being ignored?