Behavior-Tracking Apps Spawn Privacy Concerns, Liability Exposures for Schools
The use of apps are commonplace, including among educational institutions. Some of these apps have educators and parents concerned over privacy issues. For example, a popular behavior-tracking app called ClassDojo lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On an interactive white board there’s a virtual classroom displayed showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week. If, for instance, someone didn’t do his or her math homework, a point can be subtracted by clicking on the child’s cartoon avatar. The program emits a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sends a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service. Of course, good behavior is also rewarded and displayed.
According to ClassDojo, the app is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States. Many teachers say the app facilitates automating the task of recording classroom conduct, as well as allowing them to communicate directly with parents. The issue, however, according to a recent article in the New York Times, is that some parents, teachers and privacy law scholars say such technologies that record sensitive information about students is being adopted without sufficiently considering the ramifications for data privacy and fairness, like where and how the data might eventually be used.
Critics also say that the carrot-and-stick method of classroom discipline is outmoded, and that behavior apps themselves are too subjective and that behavior databases could potentially harm students’ reputations by unfairly saddling some with “a problem child” label that could stick with them for years.
Moreover, ClassDojo does not seek explicit parental consent for teachers to log detailed information about a child’s conduct. Although the app’s terms of service state that teachers who sign up guarantee that their schools have authorized them to do so, many teachers can download ClassDojo and other free apps without vetting by school supervisors. If parents wish to remove their child’s data from ClassDojo, they must ask the teacher or email the company.
“There is a real question in my mind as to whether teachers have the authority to sign up on behalf of the school,” said Steven J. McDonald, general counsel of the Rhode Island School of Design and a leading specialist on federal education privacy law,” in the Times article. “Since this is a free service,” he added, “one wonders if there is some other trade-off.”
In addition, some schools are concerned that the app could make a student feel publicly shamed and prevent the data from being publicly displayed. One school in Wisconsin Rapids also requires teachers to obtain permission from a child’s parent before they start using any app that transfers the student’s data to a company. Some parents are also concerned about how publicly displaying points to an entire classroom of students might impact particularly sensitive kids. One parent in California, according to the Times, asked a teacher to remove his son’s information from ClassDojo, indicating his concern that the data might later be aggregated and analyzed in unforeseen ways.
In follow up to the article that initially appeared in the Times, ClassDojo updated its deletion policy and the way it retains student information. Beginning January 2015, the company intends to keep students’ behavioral records for only one school year.
While apps are very useful in today’s educational environment, they must also be vetted to ensure that privacy issues are not comprised. Additional and emerging exposures for education institutions should be reviewed for liability concerns. At Caitlin Morgan, we specialize in providing coverage to many types of educational facilities including universities, public schools, private & charter schools and schools for special needs. For information about our programs, please contact us at 877.226.1027.
Sources: New York Times, ClassDojo