Students are directed to go online for schoolwork, and corporations are reaping the benefits by subjecting these students to targeted marketing.

The National Education Policy Center’s (NEPC) 18th Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercialism Trends, “Learning to be Watched: Surveillance Culture at School,” examines how “the policies that enable and encourage these practices connect today’s children and adolescents to monitoring and to marketers.”

Students who are continually instructed to go online are being shown by schools that it is normal to be under constant surveillance from these enterprises.

“Parents are very concerned about how their children’s personal data is being outsourced to ed tech companies, who are using the data for commercial purposes and tracking them online,” said Leonie Haimson, co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.

For example, Google and Facebook are widely used by schools and both “spend millions of dollars to influence lawmaking and keep regulation at bay,” said the report.

As schools partner with enterprises for free technology, educational materials, or funding, the enterprises collect data from students’ online activity.

“No teacher should sign up for any data-mining product until and unless it’s been carefully vetted for its privacy and security standards, and parents closely consulted about the potential risks as well as benefits for its use,” said Haimson.

Digital technology in education continues to grow. The Education Technology Industry Network of the Software & Industry Information Association reported the PreK-12 nonhardware education technology market is more than $8 billion.

Yet the Department of Education “encourages the use of massive data sets to facilitate technological innovation that promises to improve ‘deeper learning,’ assessment, and support systems,” the report said.

However, schools are unaware of how these data sets could be used in the future, or how enterprises are using this information to target their ads.

“Student data is also being used to produce predictive algorithms that could hamper their future success,” said Haimson. “There needs to be far stronger legal protections at every level: school, district, state, and Federal.”

Big data practices pose threats to students’ physical and psychological well-being, according to the report. An increase of food-focused ads can negatively affect their physical well-being, while other ads can lead to “heightened insecurity….displacement of values…and distorted gender socialization.”

While the report acknowledges education will continue to use technology, it offers the following recommendations:

  • Policymakers should enact enforceable legislation rather than rely on industry self-regulation to protect student privacy.
  • Policies need to protect the privacy of educational records and student data.
  • Policymakers should try to eliminate incentives that encourage parents, teachers, and administrations to sacrifice student privacy in an effort for increased finance support.
  • Review contracts with educational technology providers to check if the contract enables monitoring of students for commercial gain.
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