Edtech is treating students like products. Here’s how we can protect children’s digital rights

Schools’ use of educational technologies (edtech) grew exponentially at the height of COVID lockdowns. A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has exposed children’s rights violations by providers of edtech endorsed by governments in Australia and overseas.

The lockdowns have ended but edtech remains embedded in education. Children will have to navigate issues of data privacy in their learning and other activities.

So what can Australian governments and schools do to protect students? Both can take steps to ensure children’s digital rights are enabled and protected.

Read more: Children’s privacy is at risk with rapid shifts to online schooling under coronavirus

What problems did the report expose?

HRW reviewed 164 edtech products, including ten of the many apps and websites used in Australian schools. According to its report, New South Wales and Victorian education departments endorsed the use of six of these, including Zoom, Minecraft Education and Microsoft Teams.

The review found that, to varying degrees, these apps and websites harvested children’s personal, location or learning data to monitor, track or profile students. These practices ultimately violated children’s digital rights to privacy.

The use and commodification of data associated with our online activities may not seem particularly alarming. It is, after all, a transaction we routinely make. Yet, for children, rights to privacy and to protection from corporations that seek to maximise profits rather than act in the best interests of the child are fundamental.

Edtech commodifies children when their personal data is made available to the advertising technology industry, as the HRW report shows. When a child uses an app or website for learning, the resulting data can be collected, monitored, tracked, profiled and traded in data economies. These practices are intentionally opaque and highly profitable for technology corporations.

Read more: A new proposed privacy code promises tough rules and $10 million penalties for tech giants

A further complication is that schools choose digital technologies on behalf of children and their families. Students often do not have a genuine choice when required to use apps and websites endorsed by schools or education departments. This means children do not have the agency to make informed decisions about their online learning.

What can the government do?

Australian law can be improved to better protect children’s privacy.

In 2019, the then Coalition government announced a review of the Australian Privacy Act 1988, with submissions closing in January this year. The act predates the development of the world wide web. It needs to be strengthened to account for personal data and data-driven economies.

The new Labor government should commit to continuing this important work. It should also develop a legislated Australian Children’s Code setting out principles governing the management of children’s data. The code to protect their digital rights must be enforceable and resourced.

Countries such as the UK (Age-Appropriate Design Code in the UK) and Ireland (Fundamentals for a Child-Oriented Approach to Data Processing) have already adopted such codes. These require online services to follow a set of standards when using children’s data.

Read more: Apps that help parents protect kids from cybercrime may be unsafe too

What can the education system do?

Without legislation to protect children’s privacy, schools and education departments can still enable children’s rights to privacy. They can do so through considered selection of educational technologies and through everyday school practices and curriculum.

Education departments can draw on international standards, such as the UK Children’s Code, to:

  • inform technology procurement practices

  • better consider privacy risks when assessing educational technologies

  • develop policy and guidelines to support schools’ decision-making.

There will always be a need for schools and teachers to make critical decisions about which apps and websites they bring into the classroom. This is not to promote a “use it” or “do not use it” position. Rather, informed guidelines would support school assessments of risks and help develop practices that uphold children’s digital rights.

Assessing the risks is difficult due to the intentionally opaque designs of digital technologies. The development of assessments, policy and guidelines at a department level is necessary to support teachers to integrate edtech in ways that protect children’s privacy.

Nonetheless, there are some practical steps teachers and families can take. Examples include:

  • consider the purpose and advantage of using the chosen educational technology

  • access privacy reviews through organisations like Common Sense Media

  • review the privacy policy of each app or website, paying attention to what data it collects, for what purpose, and who the data are shared with (although these aren’t always clear or accurate, as the HRW report shows)

  • review privacy settings on apps

  • check websites using a privacy tool like Blacklight, used in the HRW review.

Read more: In an age of Elsa/Spider-Man romantic mash ups, how to monitor YouTube’s children’s content?

Education can also empower children to make informed choices about their data and privacy.

Current Australian school programs focus on digital safety and well-being. They aim to help students understand interpersonal online risks and harms. Examples of this approach are the newly revised Australian Curriculum’s digital literacy capability and the new Labor government’s promise of an eSmart Digital Licence+.

While understanding interpersonal online risks and harms are crucial for children’s well-being, this focus overlooks risks associated with the commodification of personal data. To enable children’s digital rights they must be given opportunities to understand and critically engage with digital economies, datafication and the associated impacts on their lives.

We’re still catching up to edtech

The HRW report has shone a spotlight on children’s right to digital and data privacy in schools. However, its findings may be just the tip of the iceberg in a largely unregulated industry. The report covered only a small proportion of the educational technologies being used in Australian schools.

Children have the right to engage with digital environments for learning and play, and to develop their autonomy and identity, without compromising their privacy.

The Australian government has the power to create laws to protect children’s digital rights. Together with education that empowers teachers and children to make informed decisions, these rights can be much better protected.

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