Privacy Issues Rise Up as Classroom Apps Flourish


Students in at least one class in Hunter New York’s Hunter Elementary School are very aware of where they stand on academics. Mr.Greg Fletcher, their teacher, has added ClassDojo to the classroom, an app that tracks behavior and allows teachers to award or subtract points based on how students conduct themselves. The app displays on a white board in Mr. Fletcher’s room and displays each students’ name, avatar, and scores for the week — and when Mr. Fletcher took away a point from a student who did not turn in his math homework, a sad ‘pong’ sound emitted from the program which could be heard by the whole class, according to Natasha Singer of The New York Times.

At this time, it is estimated that ClassDojo is being used by at least one teacher in one out of three schools in the US, says the developer. This app is one of many that have been developed by the roughly $7.9 billion education software market for use by pre-K through high school teachers. Automating the job of recording class conduct is a plus for many teachers, especially since the information can be sent to parents directly if parents have registered to use the program. However, some parents, teachers and privacy law experts have said that ClassDojo, and other technologies that record student information, is being incorporated without an eye toward how the information will be used.

The critics also question the method ClassDojo uses to track student conduct.  The reward/penalty method is considered outdated and too subjective by many educators, and can result in teachers judging amorphous acts like “disrespect.” There is also the potential of labeling a child in a way that could follow them for years.

Teachers can generally download and implement free apps without the permission of school supervisors. Parents must ask or email the teacher if they would like to remove their child’s data from ClassDojo.

“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, the general counsel of the Rhode Island School of Design and a leading specialist on federal education privacy law. “Since this is a free service,” he added, “one wonders if there is some other trade-off.”

Use of ClassDojo in Ottawa, Canada is also causing experts concern, says Vito Pilieci reporting for the Ottawa Citizen. Educators are not sure that collecting information about students’ in-class behavior, beginning with students as young as six-years-old, is a good idea. Two of Ottawa’s districts have acknowledged that ClassDojo is in use at a number of schools. Sally Enright, a teacher at St. Philip Elementary School in Richmond has used the app for about four years.

“I really like it for a bunch of reasons. It’s very kid friendly and it has these very cute little avatars and you can customize the points,” she said. “It’s a really great way for me to keep track of individual needs and strengths. Like giving specific feedback: ‘Wow, this student is taking turns and listening really well, they get a point.’ The other kids are learning that is a behavior that is desirable in the class.”

The big question is how the company that produces the app might use the data collected. The chief executive and co-founder, Sam Chaudhary, says that great lengths are taken to assure that information is safeguarded. He adds that the company has not and will not sell user data to advertisers.

“We never sell or share, or market your data. We are emphatic about that. This is not Facebook. With us, it’s extremely different,” said Chaudhary. “Teachers are doing this anyways. They say, ‘Johnny did this wonderful thing at school today.’ If we can help more teachers do that, that’s the use of the data. It’s to start a conversation.”

There seems to be no violation of Canadian Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, but the company is US-based which creates a legal “grey-zone” when it comes to privacy laws. Brian Beamish, provincial privacy commissioner, says the issue should be monitored.

Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon reports that smartphones’ apps pinpoint the user’s location and share contact lists with third parties — a potential security and privacy risk. Carnegie Mellon University aims to help users figure all this out with its project. Using letter grades to assess over one million free Android apps, the site allows users to understand how their information is being used and with whom it is being shared, according to Jason Hong, associate professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, who is leading the research project in the Computer Human Interaction: Mobility Privacy Security (CHIMPS) Lab

Paid apps are not included on the site, since the price paid is the company’s income and would preclude the seeking of income through selling user data to third parties.

11 19, 2014
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