Students for Sale?
Privacy and the flip side of “free”
24 April 2014

by tmartin on April 25, 2014

WAS CHANNEL ONE THE TOE IN THE WATER? The step down the slippery slope? The camel’s nose under the tent?

Twenty-odd years ago, in the late 80s and early 90s, Whittle Communications created a product called Channel One. Channel One brought big televisions, VCRs, and other cutting edge goodies to schools. Then, as now, schools longed for better tools but couldn’t afford them.

In exchange students watched a short video at the beginning of each day. The video was a newsfeed and it contained – gasp!!! — some advertising.

The channel launched in 1990 and By the end of 1991, Whittle and its largest shareholder, Time Warner, claimed to reach 6 million students in about 10,000 secondary schools and boasted of 14 companies advertising on Channel One, generating some $90 million.

Unsurprisingly, controversy ensued. Schools that welcomed in Channel One said the news programming was good, and they couldn’t access the TVs and video technology any other way.

Opponents countered that targeting advertising to students in school was bad, bad, bad. It was the corporatization of education. And, oh by the way, students might not be able to differentiate between commercial and news programming messages.

As the company announced plans to expand into elementary schools, the concern over its reach increased.

Deep breaths! Let’s put this into context for a second.

In 1991, most teachers were solidly baby boomers, growing up in the post WWII years to the mid 1960s.

Step with me into the way back machine … and remember a world where color TV was new (although quickly adopted!), stations were few (3, maybe 4 if you were near enough to receive PBS), broadcast antennas graced the rooftops, and remote controls and channel surfing lay in the misty future.

You and your family sat in front of the TV at an appointed time to watch a designated show. Maybe you even ate dinner on TV tables at the same time. How the commercials and the show all came out of that box together seemed a bit of a wonder.

But by 1991, TV played a normal unremarkable role in the daily lives of the kids in the classroom. TV did not glow with the same wondrous new-tech characteristics that it did for the teachers in their own childhoods. Instead, students casually flicked through channels with remote controls and gave barely a second thought to the technology of recording – on tape, of course!

The teachers of 1991 had learned about televison and video as a new media; their students were natives. The two saw the media – and how they used it – in very different ways. For teachers, it was a Technology. while for students, it was just some noise in the background that they used without a second thought.

In schools that adopted Channel One, a parallel push for media literacy began. Media literacy taught students to understand media messaging and the video medium by empowering them to create the media with their own tools. By teaching students to create and critique the beast, said media literacy theory, people come to understand how it works and how it impacts us all. Creating develops critical consumers.

On April 14 2014 – a time which, by the way, those Channel One era students had become the mid-career teachers of today — Google put into effect a new terms of service. In this terms of service it said explicitly it would scan all personal content including emails to create advertising profiles.

More than that, it also said explicitly that this included Google for Education.

In other words every student in every school who uses the Google Apps for Education suite now also create a profile that turns into a tasty tidbit for targeted ads. Google says 30 million people around the world use Apps for Education.

That’s a lot of tasty tidbits.

It’s one thing to self-identify into a category -– say, student or parent or professional — and receive advertising targeted to that general group. It’s quite another to have a specific profile develop from actions we do every day.

Think about it: Everything you search for, everything you type into an email, every video you watch, every application you run, literally anything you do becomes fodder for a profile about who you are and what you do.

Sorry, but that’s plain creepy.

When it happens with in the school context, that’s even creepier.

We expect schools to be a safe and secure place. The specter of gun wielding invaders terrifies us, and rightfully so. But the odds of an armed invader are miniscule compared to the daily invasions that happen every day to our children and teachers and school staff.

Anyone who uses any facet of Apps for Education has lost their right to a basic level of privacy.

The US District Court for the Northern District of California heard a case last month brought by six college students. The students claimed Google’s data mining practices violate state and federal wiretapping and privacy laws. Google counted countered that results of data mining don’t actually deliver ads unless users of its services have asked for them.

At it heart, the question of the suit asks: Should students’ educational data be used for commercial purposes? The students in question would like to see Google pay millions to all those impacted by the policy.

Of course, we might also ponder … Should any of our private data be used for commercial purposes? Are we willing to trade “free” for our DNA?

Apps for Education offers a suite of cloud-based products schools have come to know and love. It also integrates into the Chromebook, one of the devices vying for a place in the emerging 1:1 school market. Should privacy be a criterion upon which school technology is selected?

Previously, Google said – strongly – that its consumer privacy policies did not apply to Apps for Education, but in responding to the California lawsuit a new story emerged.

In its filings, Google specifically said its scanning and privacy policies applied across the board including within Apps for Education. In other words, the plaintiff students should have known what they were signing up for.

Some educators felt blindsided by this statement.

The 1974 Family Education Rights and Privacy Act responded to privacy concerns of that time, and protected a student’s educational record. It said student data could be used only for a “legitimate” educational purpose or interest.

As the collection of student data balloons – for evaluation, performance reporting, mandates, and application use – does targeted advertising just become one more blurry but “legitimate” education use?

In a time when people post selfies willy-nilly, reveal intimate details of their lives on Facebook, and seemingly disregard privacy in general, are Google’s policies the norm? Are they acceptable?

Should the policies be different for in school and out of school applications? Do students, parents, teachers, and staff have a right to expect a different level of privacy within the school? Is education a special place? Is privacy the price to pay for free?

Heavy questions! And more complex than they may seem on the surface.

I find the idea of surveillance creepy. There’s no other word for it. When someone — whether a vendor, the government, or any other party — monitors your incoming and outgoing communications, that action creates a creepy surveillance scenario, no matter how you slice it.

And I, for one, think school should be creepy-free zones.

On the flipside, the value of Apps for Education and like tools loom large … and school budgets grow ever smaller.

Apps for Education, in specific, offers a solid set of tools. It supports student learning, and provides important understanding for working within our all-digital world. Students need to know how to use tools like these to function in the 21st century world.

Data for free use in the school … Is that a fair trade?

And what about all the other data schools collect? We shouldn’t beat up only on Google. Many others stand to profit from private student data and the amount collected by everything from learning management systems to state mandated reporting and testing should make us all shudder a little.

For example, in my personal world, I’ve been on the alert and activly watching data-driven advertising from profiling play out. I recently put some printer ink into my basket at Staples online. I didn’t search for it – except within the store site. Suddenly, ads for that exact ink cartridge began appearing across applications … on Facebook, on Skype, on webpages, and on search pages.

When I do a search and receive targeted advertising on the search results page, I understand that when I look for something advertisers will try and reach me in that moment. By searching I have opened myself up. But to have a shopping cart item propagate across all application … Eeww. Ugh. I shudder in horror.

In my own world, at least I’m doing the searches and writing the email and watching the videos by my own choice. Within school, however, students may be directed to take certain actions, to watch a video as part of a class for example.

It seems terribly wrong when a communication about an essay assignment — a question between student and teacher in the form of text exchanged within an email using Google Apps for Education –should become fodder for profiling leading to targeted advertising. That constitutes a clear invasion.

Privacy is a funny thing, you know. We say we value it …and then we give it away without realizing it. We don’t realize we’re giving away … until it’s gone. And by then it may be too late.

We have created a culture where everything is for sale. You think Google makes enough money? Nah, there’s never enough money.

Next time you’re on a search page — Google’s or anyone else’s search site — click on the policy link at the bottom. Google updated its recently to make it “easier to understand” and it reads in part:

    We may collect information about the services that you use and how you use them….

    We may collect and store information (including personal information) locally on your device using mechanisms such as browser web storage (including HTML 5) and application data caches …

    We may automatically collect and store certain information … details of how you used our service, such as your search queries, telephony log information like your phone number, calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls, duration of calls, SMS routing information and types of calls …

Are you comfortable with these as applied to your kids in school?

This makes the shouts and cry over Channel One seem quaint in comparison. Or maybe Channel One was all that its opponents feared — that it was indeed the camel’s nose — and today, as the whole camel plops down next to us, kicking its feet on the schoolroom desk, we don’t even notice. Do we?

Resource: Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), US Department of Education


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: