Edtech treats students as products. Here’s how we can protect children’s digital rights

School use of educational technology (edtech) increased exponentially during the height of the COVID-related lockdowns. A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report exposed child rights abuses by government-approved edtech providers in Australia and overseas.

Lockdowns have ended, but edtech remains rooted in education. Children will have to deal with data privacy issues in their learning and other activities.

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

Read more: Children’s privacy threatened by rapid shift to online education under coronavirus

What issues did the report reveal?

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

The review found that to varying degrees, these apps and websites harvest 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 make regularly. Yet for children, the right to privacy and business protection that seek to maximize profits rather than act in the best interests of the child are fundamental.

Edtech turns children into commodities when their personal data is made available to the ad tech industry, as HRW’s report shows. When a child uses an app or website to learn, the resulting data can be collected, monitored, tracked, profiled and exchanged in data economies. These practices are intentionally opaque and very profitable for technology companies.

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

Another complication is that schools choose digital technologies on behalf of children and their families. Students often don’t have much of a choice when it comes to using apps and websites approved by schools or education departments. This means that children lack the power 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 exam of the Australian Privacy Act 1988, with submissions ending in January this year. The law predates the development of the World Wide Web. It needs to be strengthened to accommodate 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 the principles governing the management of data relating to children. Code to protect their digital rights must be enforceable and resourced.

Countries like the UK (UK age-appropriate design code) and Ireland (Fundamentals of a child-centred approach to data processing) have already adopted such codes. These require online services to adhere to a set of standards when using children’s data.

Read more: Apps that help parents protect their kids from cybercrime can also be dangerous

What can the education system do?

Without legislation to protect children’s privacy, schools and education departments can still allow children’s right to privacy. They can do this through thoughtful selection of educational technologies and daily school practices and programs.

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

  • inform technology procurement practices

  • better consider privacy risks when evaluating educational technologies

  • develop policies and guidelines to support school decision-making.

Schools and teachers will always need to make critical decisions about which apps and websites they bring to the classroom. This is not to promote a ‘use it’ or ‘don’t use it’ position. Rather, informed guidelines would support schools’ risk assessments and help develop practices that uphold children’s digital rights.

Risk assessment is difficult due to the intentionally opaque designs of digital technologies. The development of department-level assessments, policies, and guidelines is needed to help teachers integrate edtech in a way that protects children’s privacy.

Nevertheless, teachers and families can take some practical steps. Examples include:

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

  • access privacy notices through organizations such as common sense media

  • review the privacy policy of each application or website, paying attention to what data it collects, for what purpose and with whom the data is shared (although these are not always clear or precise, as shown in the HRW report)

  • review privacy settings on apps

  • verify websites using a privacy tool like Black lightused in the HRW review.

Read more: In the era of Elsa/Spider-Man romance mash-ups, how do you monitor YouTube kids’ content?

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

Current Australian school curricula focus on digital safety and wellbeing. They aim to help students understand interpersonal risks and harms online. Examples of this approach are the new Australian curriculum digital literacy ability and the promise of the new Labor government of a eSmart+ digital license.

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

We’re still catching up with edtech

HRW’s report shed light on children’s right to digital and data privacy in schools. However, his findings may just be the tip of the iceberg in a largely unregulated industry. The report covered only a small portion of the educational technologies used in Australian schools.

Children have the right to engage in digital environments to learn and play, and to develop their autonomy and identity, without compromising their privacy.

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

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