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Common Sense Media Evaluating Privacy Policies of Ed-Tech Products

Cross-posted from the Marketplace K-12 blog. By Michele Molnar.


San Francisco

More than 20 school districts are working with Common Sense Media to establish a system that will rate the privacy policies on ed-tech products used by schools, according to Omar Khan, the nonprofit's chief product and technology officer.

Khan told an audience at the Education Industry Summit here that the "Common Sense Privacy Ratings Initiative" will be announced formally to educators at the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, conference in June, but it won't be ready for use then. In the second half of this year, up to 1,000 products will be rated, and the results released in 2016, according to Khan, whose San Francisco-based nonprofit works to promote safe technology and media for children. 

While the job of creating standards and an evalution system is complex, the outcome of the process is likely to be a simple, color-coded key so that schools can readiy understand companies' compliance with privacy standards, Khan said.

"Maybe it will be green, orange, and red," he said, where green means "no issues found," orange denotes a lack of clarity about how much safety the privacy policy would provide, and red means "definitely not safe."

The Education Industry Technology Network of the Software & Information Industry Association, or SIIA—which sponsored the summit—will have "every opportunity to weigh in" on the ongoing development of the system, Khan explained after his presentation. In fact, he said the SIIA has been consulted throughout. 

Large districts such as Houston; Chicago; Fairfax, Va.; and New York City are among those that have been working for the past year to develop the rating system with Common Sense Media, he said.

"The real idea here is to use school districts to do deeper evaluations of products," Khan explained.

"There's a lot of pressure on districts, from parents and legislators," to make sure the ed-tech tools schools use comply with relevant laws and practices, said Khan. Common Sense Media helped craft California's sweeping privacy law—the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act—which passed last year, and became the foundation for the Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015 that was introduced last month by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Luke Messer (R-Ind.)

Criteria for Privacy Rating

The privacy rating system for ed-tech will be based on a rubric, which is still under development.  "It's in version 1.2 or 1.3 now," said Khan. "It's not yet ready. There's still a lot of work to be done."

The five items on the rubric's checklist include: 

  • Privacy
  • Security
  • Safety and social media
  • Advertising and consumerism
  • Legal compliance
The privacy rubric will be in the public domain so any school can use it. District reviewers will be guided through the evaluation rubric and scoring process, with one district agreeing to do a deep evaluation that is shared with other schools. Common Sense is working on a way for vendors to have input during the process. Companies will have an opportunity to see and respond to the evaluations before they are released.

"We want to give vendors a redress period, so if they have questions, we can have some back and forth," to address concerns that are raised, Khan said. Ed-tech providers with a product that receives less than a "green" rating can request changes or make adjustments to improve its rating—before the rating is released, Khan said. "A lot of this is about vendor education."

The final version also will be designed to allow for third-party reviews, like deep security analyses that Common Sense and districts cannot easily conduct.  

Khan noted that Common Sense Education is already rating products on Graphite, a platform intended to make it easier for educators to find the best apps, games, and websites for the classroom.

Last week, the organization announced the launch of Common Sense Kids Action, a $20 million nationwide project aimed at prioritizing education issues through a range of legislative and political efforts. Jim Steyer, Common Sense's founder and CEO, likened it to establishing an "AARP for kids." 

Khan said the new privacy effort is not directly related to Common Sense Kids Action, though he said both involve advocay on behalf of students.

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