Sunday, January 03, 2010

My New Year's Wish - Let's Revisit COPPA

Happy New Year! Tis the season for resolutions, reflection, and renewals. Every year about this time, I spend some time reflecting on the past year and thinking ahead to the new year. What worked well? What are my wishes for the new year? What resolutions do I have to make for those wishes to come true? It’s also a time of purging, organizing and letting go. As I clean closets and drawers and remove things that no longer fit my lifestyle, I make room for the new toys, exciting adventures, and increased possibilities in the new year.

This year I have a wish that would involve some purging and cleaning out of outdated regulations that are barriers to access to some of the wonderful learning tools available in a digital age.

Ten years ago, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act was created to protect children’s privacy. One of its goal is to prevent websites from collecting personal information from children under 13 without parental consent.

Although the need for protecting children’s privacy and safety has not changed, the way we live and learn online has changed in the past 10 years. Ten years ago, many feared that online shopping was unsafe; today more and more of us are not only shopping online, but also banking online. Not so long ago, many feared putting any private information on line; today more and more of us are using Facebook and other social networking sites to communicate with family and friends. Security and privacy are still very important issues, but new security measures and increased awareness about privacy settings have increased the functionality of the Internet as a tool throughout society. Why not encourage increased awareness of privacy and use security features available in online tools to protect children, rather than a blanket statement aimed at keeping children under 13 away from these tools.

Could it be that ten year old regulations aimed at protecting our children's privacy need to be updated? Wouldn’t the first year of a new decade be the perfect time to remove one of the barriers to using 21st century tools in today’s schools?
Photo by Giuseppe Bognanni taken from Diane Cordell's Blog Post Beyond the Wall

Website owners’s fear of noncompliance with COPPA has resulted in terms of service so complex and restrictive that they block the doorway to 21st century learning possibilities. COPPA states that websites are not allowed to collect private information from anyone under 13. It does not state the site cannot be used by members under 13 years old, but it does prevent the owners of those websites from collecting private information from those under 13 without parental permission. Since the owner of a website cannot prevent someone using their site from sharing identifying information in a post or profile, the easiest way to comply with this part of COPPA is to include an explicit statement that prohibits anyone under 13 from using their site. This creates several barriers.

  1. It discourages (and usually prevents) the use of many valuable learning
    resources from being used in today's 21st century classrooms.
  2. It discourages teachers themselves from exploring and experiencing new ways of
    learning and including many 21st century resources in the design of learning
  3. It stifles innovation in the design of learning. Few companies would invest in research and design of products that be challenged as noncompliant.

There are fabulous resources and opportunities for students to learn using online tools that are not available to children under 13 due to fear of non-compliance.

A group of middle school students and their teacher recently stumbled across the popular website Shelfari. The site allows you to “create a virtual shelf to show off your books, see what your friends are reading and discover new books”. The enthusiasm of students for reading and talking about reading is exactly what every teacher and librarian tries to foster in children. And yet, these children and their teacher’s desire to use Shelfari was met with a black and white statement on the sites’ privacy guidelines that prevented the teacher from moving forward her student’s request to create online bookshelves of the books they were reading. The statement “This Site is not intended for use by children under 13” was surely included by Shelfari’s lawyers to protect them from COPPA noncompliance. The children and their teacher looked for similar sites that would allow them access to similar 21st century learning tools for creating online bookshelves and discussions about reading. Two other similar sites, Library Thing and Good Reads included similar statements. Photo Credit: Mr. Allen's Class Blog

Surely COPPA was not aimed at sites that promote reading!

Even though, the law does allow children under 13 to participate with parental permission, many website owners do not have a vehicle for verifying parental consent, thus include the blanket (nobody under 13 statements) as the easiest way to comply with COPPA.

Considering the fact that research supports social learning, such as talking about books, and considering that we currently possess the technology to engage students using online learning tools, might it not be a good time to take a second look at COPPA and update it to allow website owners to make engaging tools available to K-8 students and still protect the privacy and safety of our children.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act S 1492 100th Congress Section 215 as already amended the legislation to require elementary and secondary schools with computer access to the Internet to educate minors about appropriate online behavior, including online interactions with other individuals in social networking websites and in chat rooms and cyberbullying awareness and response. Then why not also update legislations to make websites that promote learning a resource by which to educate our children.

Currrently a few websites have taken the lead in making their tools available to students. Sites like

  • Glogster (digital poster making)
  • Animoto (digital slideshows and videos)
  • Diigo (online bookmarking)
  • Voice Thread (digital conversations around artifacts)
  • PBworks (wiki with classroom accounts feature)
  • Google (k12 collaboration applications)

now offer features and classroom friendly acceptable use policies that support the use of their tools in education. They have turned the responsibility for verifying parental permissions and educating and supervising students to educators. They have added features that allow educators to monitor the behavior of their students and teach students how to be a safe and ethical digital citizen.

My wish for the New Year would be that we remove some of the barriers for students to learn using digital tools. Perhaps its time we take a second look at COPPA and revise it so it stops being a barrier to access to 21st century learning for our children. Surely this 10 year old regulations could use a facelift to reflect the realities of how we live and learn today. Could we not revise this regulation in such a way that would encourage website owners to create classroom friendly features of their website and encourage teachers to use exciting online tools to motivate student learning and shape the next generation of digital citizens.