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Ed Dept To Schools: Protect Student Data Online

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US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks with students, parents and counselors as they fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) during a FAFSA workshop with US First Lady Michelle Obama before she speaks about college affordability at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, February 5, 2014. In late February, the Education Department directed schools to be more careful with student data. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty I | SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Education Department on Tuesday encouraged school districts to use more scrutiny to protect student privacy when using online educational services.

Online companies provide services such as the collection of school lunch money, portals for homework assignments and sites to watch video demonstrations. Concerns have been raised that private information collected by the companies could be shared publicly or used to market products and services to students or their families.

Districts often have contracts with companies, but online services also can be provided without a district's direct knowledge. For example, a teacher could direct students to a website to retrieve homework assignments without notifying school administrators.

A patchwork of laws spells out how students' data can be used, but the laws can be difficult for districts to interpret. Some privacy advocates say laws haven't kept up with evolving technology, and there's been a flurry of activity at the state and federal level to address the issue.

In guidance issued Tuesday, the Education Department encouraged districts to look closely at what online services are already in use within their schools. The guidelines suggest that districts develop procedures to evaluate and approve educational services and, when possible, use a written contract or legal agreement. They also spell out applicable federal laws.

Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, said the new guidance doesn't go far enough in providing applicable advice to districts. He said districts are dealing with complex questions, such as whether to take advantage of free educational programs available online and deciding what programs should be downloaded on tablets and other devices increasingly used in schools.

"I think if you are a district it is easy to be confused about what your obligations are," Levin said.

James Steyer, the chief officer of the advocacy group Common Sense Media, praised the recommendations and said they come at an important time as schools look for ways to expand learning using technology.

"It's still the wild, wild west out there, but it can be fixed," Steyer said.

The guidance comes one day after Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at a student privacy data conference and encouraged technology companies to do more to ensure student data is secure.

"There's plenty of energy, in this room and around the country, for stronger regulation of your work. Let me say this clearly: It is in your interest to police yourselves before other do," Duncan said.



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