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COPPA and teaching

Last year my big obsession was copyright and fair use in schools. I’m a huge fan of the doctrine of fair use, but I feared it was being overextended in many classrooms, especially as student work (and even teacher materials) were increasingly being published online and thus made available to a much larger audience than the traditional one-time sharing of a project within the walls of a classroom. An expanded, authentic audience is a great thing, but it’s much harder to claim “fair use” when you’re sharing copyrighted material freely online. While fair use remains a bit of a gray area, I feel I have enough of a grasp of it to teach my students about how to be careful and thoughtful in their use of copyrighted works.

Lately, perhaps because I’m working with a younger population and trying to incorporate more web-based tools, I’ve become focused on COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. While I am all about protecting privacy online, and especially the privacy of young people who may not understand the risks of sharing personal information, it has been driving me nuts lately. It seems that so many wonderful websites and tools (GoodReads and Prezi, just to name two that I’d really love to use with students) state clearly and without exception that their services are not to be used by individuals under age thirteen.

Now, there are several other sites that seem to understand their potential within education and have adjusted their terms of service to reflect this. Edmodo, Glogster, Weebly, and Animoto are a few examples and I applaud them for opening up their services to educators while still working to maintain the privacy and safety of children. What I’m struggling with right now is whether it is a violation of COPPA to use websites that prohibit users under age 13 if you have parental permission, or whether parental permission is necessary if/when an educator provides permission. makes me wonder if I’ve been reading too much “officialness” into the terms of service of various providers. I’m going to be calling their FAQ line on Monday to find out more, as I’d really love to begin teaching with more web tools that I’m currently shying away from.

At this point, I’ve spoken with students about COPPA and how websites like Facebook and Prezi restrict their services to individuals thirteen and older because they are aimed primarily at an adult audience, while websites aimed at young people (e.g. Club Penguin) have a different way of handling children’s information. I’ve shared with my oldest students (ages 9 to 11) that I will not ask them to create nor will I condone their use of websites that disallow users under 13, but that I find this restriction very…well, restricting. But just like the copyright issue, I don’t want to strike too much fear into their little hearts. I want to teach my students to be savvy and thoughtful about what information they share online, not teach them to fear every little thing. I may have gone overboard on the side of copyright rather than fair use when I was student teaching last year by looking at it from the copyright holders’ perspectives a little too much. I hope I’m not doing the same thing this year and that the FTC can clear up some of my uncertainty. I’ll post my findings!