Weekday mornings, my sons take packed lunches and drinks to their workstations and log onto meetings that kick off their day. They aren’t marketing gurus or day traders. The devices they use to conduct their work are IPS-issued iPads; their jobs are pre-K and kindergarten classes. Their morning meeting app, Microsoft Teams, is notorious for collecting and selling user data and no one—not their parents, not their teachers, certainly not the boys themselves—has a choice about permitting it to scrape data. In virtual learning, the options are Microsoft Teams or truancy.
After the morning meeting ends, the boys launch into a schedule of activities that’s mostly disengaged from the human interactions that serve young children best: a video game to teach math, YouTube language lessons, an ebook interface that reads aloud, and more. Of all six to 10 apps my sons are required to use in their daily learning, only two are rated “pass” by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that rates educational technology privacy. Common Sense compiles scores by assessing a range of privacy concern categories, including data collection, sharing, selling, and other aspects, and considers an app’s overall transparency on privacy issues.
One of the two that pass, Clever, is simply a portal to organize other apps. Most of the rest earn warnings from Common Sense’s evaluations; Their privacy policies allow school districts to opt-in on behalf of their students. The primary IPS course management system, Schoology, even bypasses compliance with FERPA, the federal law requiring school officials to guard student privacy, by exempting itself from designation as a school official and offloading responsibility for data privacy to the school administrators who elect to use it.
What’s worse, Epic!’s interactive “read to me” feature may actually decrease children’s comprehension while it mines their data. This would be concerning to their father and me even if we weren’t both writers and English professors, but as book people, we are particularly alarmed. What’s worse, the four-year-old is already demonstrating this impact—he wanders around the house reciting stories from the Epic! app without any understanding of their content. This particular “free” app comes at a significant potential cost.
Conversely, DreamBox Math, which passes the Common Sense evaluation, charges $7,900 per school. Compared with free apps, it may still be a bargain, given that it boasts a Harvard study attesting to its effectiveness. This may also explain why I keep getting emails insisting that my children log onto DreamBox for 30-60 minutes each week. Schools don’t want to waste such expenditures.
But effective or not, DreamBox leaves my children irritable, listless, and less verbal than usual, strung out in the same way that too much TV does, whereas their teachers’ video lessons, which they complete in workbooks, engage them fully in their learning. Epic! troubles us even further, as we have no control over which of its 40,000+ books they read unless we read with them while attempting to work from home, a key recommendation of the AAP for all app use which is, of course, impossible to do while doing our jobs. An app that offers such a massive, unfiltered quantity of options isn’t a curricular enhancement—it’s busy work.
And since IPS’s socially-distanced in-classroom pandemic procedures rely heavily on apps, as well, we can’t monitor our children’s use when schools are open. It wasn’t until our kindergartener came home using “fat” as a pejorative and reported the fat-phobia and gender-essentialism he’d been learning from books in Epic! that we fully understood the problem. We’re working hard to raise kind, generous children who will help build an inclusive community, so hearing marginalizing, hurtful language from them after a single day of Epic! use reinforces our perception that its purpose isn’t education but profit, whether via data collection or market development.
I emailed IPS COO Scott Martin in my capacity as a concerned IPS parent to ask for more information on data collection and privacy, but received no reply. Parental concerns about screen time requirements , which total three and a half to four hours a day if students complete everything on the schedule, wildly exceeding the American Association of Pediatrics’ recommendation of no more than one hours per day for pre-K and kindergarten children, have been met with similar dismissal by the district.
Every parent understands that schools are making difficult choices. But these inflexible requirements that violate first principles of early childhood education and the attendant data and privacy threats they introduce will seem, after all, like egregious failures. In our home, we spend hours every day working to mitigate the impact of this technology on our children. But we have the luxury to do so; my husband and I both remain employed from home and share parenting and virtual learning duties. Marginalized kids may not be so lucky: many have simply disappeared from their virtual learning environments. In all cases, the impact of the data privacy risks won’t be clear for months or years.
I’d like to think my kids will be fine, that the hardship of this experience will build resilience. But what we see is that they’re struggling with more than the isolation and sadness generated by school closures and the pandemic in general. We see a vibrant, loving four-year-old reduced to tantrums after using his school iPad, and regressing in language and self-control. We see a smart, eager five-year-old struggling harder to learn than ever before. If that’s the cost of staying enrolled in school during a pandemic, we can afford it. But if the purpose of their participation is to provide user data to Silicon Valley startups, the cost of free “educational” apps is too high.
Privacy ratings of IPS-required iPad apps with Common Sense links:
- DreamBox Math: Pass at 85% secure
- Epic! Unlimited Books for Kids: Warning at 50% secure
- Schoology Course Management System: Warning at 63% secure, and no FERPA compliance
- Microsoft Teams: Warning at 79% secure
- YouTube: Warning at 69% secure
- Clever data organization shell: Pass at 91% secure
- HMH iRead: Warning at 76% secure
- SeeSaw (option for teachers to share photos and materials with families, not required by IPS): Pass at 82% secure