Advice Column: Assigning Students to Visit Websites

Advice Column: Assigning Students to Visit Websites

Got questions about student privacy issues? The Future of Privacy Forum’s new advice column connects you with subject matter experts to answer your most pressing questions!

Today’s Question
A teacher in my school asked their students to visit different newspaper websites as part of a homework assignment. An angry parent emailed saying the assignment violates student privacy laws. Does it? How?


Our Take

While it isn’t immediately clear why this assignment raised concerns for this parent, nothing in the nation’s primary student privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), says that students can’t use newspaper articles for assignments. It’s possible this parent was worried the newspaper websites would require their child to create online accounts using personally identifiable information (or PII) or collect information about their child as they used the site. Perfectly valid concerns!

If students had to create their own accounts to access the websites, additional scrutiny could be warranted. Most newspapers require a paid subscription, so if the school already pays for accounts that students can use, there won’t be much (if any) protected information collected, as long as they haven’t bought subscriptions for each student or had the students sign up on their own.

The only case I can think of that would be cause for a FERPA concern is if the parent recognized that the newspaper site was collecting PII outside the bounds of FERPA and the school still required students to complete the assignment. This would not be allowable under FERPA, because parents and eligible student cannot be forced to waive their rights under FERPA by signing a Terms of Service agreement.  Because of this, it is imperative that schools provide alternative means of completing the assignments or else using a generic account for the website which would not collect student PII (see example:

We can’t comment on the content or the nature of the assignment itself, but here are some helpful questions a teacher could ask a parent in this situation to gauge their concerns:

  • Is the concern related to the assignment itself?
  • Are you worried about the content of the sites the students are visiting?
  • Are you concerned about the information websites may collect?

If parents are concerned about the last item, teachers should be prepared to describe how accounts are set up. They should also review the websites in advance to ensure that no PII is being collected during student visits. To learn more about keeping parents informed about school privacy policies and use of data collection tools in the classroom, check out our favorite transparency resources: a student privacy communications toolkit from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and this infographic that you can share with parents.

As always, feel free to submit your student privacy question by using our contact form. We look forward to responding!

This advice column is composed of a mix of submitted questions, questions raised in public fora (e.g. Twitter), and frequently asked questions FPF receives on student privacy. All questions will be edited to maintain the sender’s anonymity. The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only.  Information on this website may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information.

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