‘Ask Before You App’

School Districts Vetting Online Learning Apps More Because of Growing Privacy Concerns

By Samantha Cleaver

During her years in the classroom, Karen Mensing, technology integration facilitator with the Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Ariz., used every cool new app she came across.

“I wanted to try the new apps,” Mensing told Digital Privacy News. “It was fun.”

And, for a long time, “We weren’t vetting apps,” she said. “It was, like, do what works for you.”

But since then, the attitude towards using apps outside of a school district’s approved list has changed. Privacy considerations are at the forefront — and, said Mensing, “We are taking the approach that less is more.”

“We are taking the approach that less is more.”

Karen Mensing, Paradise Valley Unified School District, Phoenix, Ariz.

Less is more has not always been the mantra during online learning. When school went online in the spring because of COVID-19, teachers and districts were bombarded with free trials for education apps.

At first, teachers were downloading new apps and taking advantage of free trials, with some concerning results, experts told Digital Privacy News.

‘Zoombombing’ Instances

The example that comes to mind for Anisha Reddy, policy council with the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) in Washington, is when Zoom offered teachers the general platform — not the school-specific one — for free in the spring.

When teachers quickly signed on, without knowledge of privacy ramifications, reports surfaced of “Zoombombing” and other privacy concerns.

Since the spring, however, Laurel Aguilar-Kirchhoff, digital-learning project specialist with San Bernardino County, Calif., has seen a shift.

“I think (the spring) brought an awareness and a greater drive for the districts, at least in our county, to be proactive about talking to teachers,” she said told Digital Privacy News.

Now, Aguilar-Kirchhoff said teachers were more cautious and judicious in their use of apps, especially those that were free and not vetted by districts.

Free Apps Not ‘Free’

Jeffrey Billings, Paradise Valley’s IT director, and his team evaluate teacher-requested apps.

So far, they have banned 6,000 apps, approved 3,000 — and have an additional 8,000 apps on their list that exist but have not been requested yet.

Their approval process takes between a day and two weeks, depending on the complexity of the app, he said.

As fast as the approval process can be, “it can be frustrating,” Mensing acknowledged, “when teachers find a good app and the IT department doesn’t let them use it.”

The purpose of vetting apps is to ensure that teachers and schools have apps that meet privacy standards.

“There are best practices, but it’s a matter of training teachers.”

Anisha Reddy, Future of Privacy Forum.

Schools can get in to trouble, said Amy McLaughlin, project director with the Consortium for School Networking in Washington, when a teacher decides to use a tool that the school doesn’t know they are using and don’t have an agreement with.

To protect students’ privacy, any app that’s used in schools should be in compliance with two key federal laws, FERPA and COPPA, and more than 140 state-specific privacy laws.

These laws have elements that are not considered for general apps, FPF’s Reddy told Digital Privacy News.

Teachers may not know about privacy laws — and they may not realize that downloading and using apps can have consequences.

In San Bernardino County, Aguilar-Kirchhoff said her rule of thumb was to “ask before you app.”

Teachers may or may not know how apps are vetted or how to find apps that are built with students in mind, Reddy said. “There are best practices,” she said, “but it’s a matter of training teachers.”

Training Teachers Properly

When Aguilar-Kirchhoff trains teachers about apps and privacy, she compares TikTok and Flipgrid, an educational app.

Putting the apps’ privacy statements side by side, the difference is clear: TikTok allows other companies to collect information from users, deliver targeted advertising — and does not monitor the privacy practices of the companies they sell information to.

On the other hand, Flipgrid does not advertise and doesn’t sell or collect data.

The spring “brought an awareness and a greater drive for the districts … to be proactive about talking to teachers.”

Laurel Aguilar-Kirchhoff, San Bernardino County, Calif.

Comparing the privacy statements, Aguilar-Kirchhoff said, helps teachers realize that “everyone has a responsibility to protect our students’ privacy and their data.”

This school year, leaders in the Fontana Unified School District in Fontana, Calif., have seen an increase in requests to vet apps, specifically those for assessment.

As more requests come in, the district is doing more teacher training.

“It’s one thing to make it available and purchase it,” said Adele Thomas, the district’s director of professional development, “but then we need to make it accessible to everybody.”

Thomas and her team said they also were trying not to overwhelm teachers with too many apps.

Privacy, Security Key

At this point in the year, the teachers that Mensing works with in Paradise Valley have settled on the apps for daily teaching. As teachers continue to settle into online learning, app requests may decrease as well, she said.

In the meantime, remote teaching has taken away the challenge of convincing teachers of the importance of online tools.

“Now, teachers want the tools — and to know how to use them,” said Thomas of the Fontana school district.

“Now, teachers want the tools — and to know how to use them.”

Adele Thomas, Fontana Unified School District, Calif.

In the long term, she predicted a payoff, as teachers would bring their knowledge and strategies back to the classroom.

Mensing, also looking forward, said she saw a continuation of teachers using apps that were more secure because they now understood the importance of privacy, and of what could happen from using something that was not secure.

“I think COVID has forced teachers to be more tech-savvy,” she told Digital Privacy News. “Privacy and security will continue to be a huge focus.

“We have more systems in place now than when this started — and I don’t think that will change.”

Samantha Cleaver is an education writer in Charlotte, N.C.

 Resources for Teachers and Schools

— Samantha Cleaver