As a proponent of using resources in school that are used in the real world, I’m often asked what my feelings are about using social networks with students, which I have written about numerous times here on my blog. There’s great educational value in using such networks, but the sticky part always comes when asked about the use of networks with students under 13. This recently came up again when Renny Fong, Innovation Specialist at a K - 5 school in New York City asked the following:
"Could we create a "safe" place where our students could have a private/intranet kind of social network. Is there anything out there that is for 10-year-olds or even younger, where you don't need an e-mail address and the activity could be monitored by the school? Is this even a good idea? We even have a handful of first and second graders who have come to the computer lab asking if they can go on Facebook!
What to do?
Any advice would be greatly appreciated! I have a feeling you've probably even written about this, so if you could forward me along any information. I think we need to address this as a school, amongst teachers, students, and of course, parents."
The question is not as easy to answer as one might think because many of us in the ed tech world are under the impression that the COPA (or is it COPPA?) law says you can’t use online networks with students. Many of us believe this because places like Ning and Facebook require users to be 13. However, after posing this question to my own learning networks in Twitter, Facebook, Classroom 2.0, one of my friends indicated my belief was incorrect, so I studied the law a little more closely and was surprised to find the following about the law.
First, there are two different Acts. Yes, two!
To shed a little light on this, here is a recap of each bill (Wikipedia, April 16, 2010).
Child Online Protection Act
The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was a law in the United States of America, passed in 1998 with the declared purpose of restricting access by minors to any material defined as harmful to such minors on the Internet. The United States federal courts have ruled that the law violates the constitutional protection of free speech, and therefore have blocked it from taking effect. As of 2009, the law remains unconstitutional and unenforced.
COPA required all commercial distributors of "material harmful to minors" to restrict their sites from access by minors. "Material harmful to minors" was defined as material that by "contemporary community standards" was judged to appeal to the "prurient interest" and that showed sexual acts or nudity (including female breasts).
On March 22, 2007, U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed, Jr. struck down the bill, issuing an order permanently enjoining the government from enforcing COPA, commenting that "perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection." The government again appealed, and the case was heard before the Third Circuit.Children's Online Privacy Protection Act
The Act applies to websites and online services operated for commercial purposes that are either directed to children under 13 or have actual knowledge that children under 13 are providing information online. Most recognized non-profit organizations are exempt from most of the requirements of COPPA.
The application of the Act to photographs of children is a matter of interpretation that is yet to be tested in the courts. However, one US government department says "There is no restriction on the dissemination of photos of children, if they are taken in public spaces, with no identification, and are used only for editorial (not advertising) purposes. The use of pre-arranged photos, taken in a protected environment such as a school or hospital, and showing a highly-defined and recognizable image, requires a release".
So what's that all mean?
The COPA bill was never passed because it was believed to violate free speech. I think that Judge Reed's insight in regards to the COPA bill is important. It goes in alignment with my belief about filtering which is that we should be preparing students inside schools for the world they live in outside of schools.
The COPPA bill was bill was passed into a law, however, the belief many educators have about the illegality of students engaging in online networks is incorrect. I was one of those educators who believed that it was illegal because Facebook and Ning had policies against children under 13 using their networks and I have read that decision was made as a result of the COPPA law. After review of this law, I have concluded that they do this because it's easier to just disallow students from using the site then it is to complete the paperwork involved. Also, it should be noted that the act applies only to services that are operated for commercial purposes.
So what now?
Since I'm proponent of using social (or as I say, "learning") networks with students, I'm often asked by those like Renny, what to use for schools who want to do social networking with elementary students. There are a bunch of paid for sites exist, but I believe these services should be free for teachers, just like Ning is for students over 13. Many companies have jumped on the band wagon for paid for sites for students, i.e. Saywire, SchoolTown, eChalk, ePals. But I believe that there should be companies who bother to figure out the paperwork for students under 13 and offer a free alternative to students. And, the timing for this is great. As many innovative educators have recently learned, there is a big brouhaha happening with Ning as recently reported in Tech Crunch here Ning's Bubble Bursts: No More Free Networks, Cuts 40% Of Staff and then by the New York Times Ning Kills Free Service, Would Like to Get Paid Now, Please.
Now all sorts of companies are popping their heads out excited and ready to take their piece of the market. Companies like http://wackwall.com are proudly displaying their willingness to take the share of the market. There are two things to notice on the WackWall homepage image:
1) They are primed to take Ning's market. In fact their blog says that they will soon release a migration tool.
2) They have a young child on the homepage. So, maybe they are willing to accept under-13 users. I didn't find anything to the contrary on their site.
There are many sites to check out though. In fact, it was amazing to watch the speed at which the alternatives to Ning document has developed http://is.gd/bup2u. As I visited this document today there were more than 350 other viewers looking on as well. Instantly there's a list of possibilities for educators to explore, and now that Ning has crashed down and opened up the market, we'll see what plays out. Will this become a paid for only environment, or will freemiums prevail???
And, then what?
If you plan to use a learning network with kids under 13, tech facilitator Kevin Jarrett and library media specialist Susan Ettenheim have good advice. Kevin shares that at their school, they, "have everything covered re: COPPA/CIPA/whatever ... we use no personally-identifiable info ANYWHERE, parents sign a permission form, and I (Kevin) create the accounts and have the passwords. So, we (the school) have control." Susan Ettenheim explains ides for how you could have a site with no personally identifiable information in her blog post, Creating Avatars and Icons as personal representations - as opposed to photos. For the under 13-sect, this is a great option. For over-13, I recommend we start helping students establish an appropriate digital footprint that represents an identity of which they are proud. You can read more about how to do that here.