Friday, April 16, 2010

Death of Freemiums at Ning Could Mean Better Opportunities for Schools

Students Using Social NetworksAs 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!

Child Online Protection Act and Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. And, therein lies part of the confusion.

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[1] (COPA)[2] 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,[7] 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."[9] The government again appealed, and the case was heard before the Third Circuit.[10]

Ultimately, on January 21, 2009, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear appeals of the lower court decision, effectively killing the bill.[13][14]

Children's Online Privacy Protection Act

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) is a United States federal law, enacted October 21, 1998. The act applies to the online collection of personal information by persons or entities under U.S. jurisdiction from children under 13 years of age. It details what a website operator must include in a privacy policy, when and how to seek verifiable consent from a parent or guardian, and what responsibilities an operator has to protect children's privacy and safety online including restrictions on the marketing to those under 13. While children under 13 can legally give out personal information with their parents' permission, many websites altogether disallow underage children from using their services due to the amount of paperwork involved.

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.[1]

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".[3]

So what's that all mean?

I did my best above to share the relevant parts of each Act. Here's my my educator's interpretation. I am not a lawyer however, so for a legal interpretation, you may need to find one of those.

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 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 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.


  1. Great great post! I am part of a social media team at K12 and our students under 13 are definitely a challenge to address. You want to engage them because the reality is they are growing up in the digital world but you have to protect them as well.. it's a slippery slope!

  2. The under 13 problem is why we use WordPress with BuddyPress for social networking and are looking for a Twitter clone.

  3. "For over-13, I recommend we start helping students establish an appropriate digital footprint that represents an identity of which they are proud." In Youth Voices ( where I work with my high school students, a quick search on a user name shows a list of all activity, posts, comments to posts, What's Up (twitter-like posts) and is sobering to students to see how easily their activity is tracked.

    Another wonderful exercise is to have students "Google" the person sitting next to them or maybe it's better to let everyone choose a partner to avoid the sometimes uncomfortable reality of what is public. I have had many a student find full first and last names online via sports teams on which they play. I have also had a number of embarrassing moments as they come across, all too easily, information about uncles and aunts and cousins while searching on their own names.

    The children who grow up in NYC have experienced hardship, cultural diversity, poverty, injustice and have learned how to cross busy streets safely. We certainly owe it to them to help them learn to do the same online.

  4. Does the online learning platform at count? Safe environment, no photos...

  5. Great article, it's nice to see that people are doing their homework. I'd like to pipe in on behalf of Saywire. My name is Josh Hoover, I'm the Chief Technology Officer and creator of Saywire. I've been working with educators and administrators for over 5 years to create an environment that is safe for students and teachers to interact.

    When I first started building Saywire, I worked very closely with a lawyer who was well versed in COPA (this was before it was dissolved). My intent was to insure that what we were doing would provide schools with the best possible experience we could deliver while keeping the safety of *both* students and teachers at the forefront of what we were developing. Ironically, when I first laid out my plans, she told me it wasn't possible to build the type of online environment I had envisioned and stay within the confines of COPA's ambiguous restrictions.

    What I'm trying to say is that Saywire is not a technology company that built a social network and decided to target the education community as an afterthought. Instead, we're a company who continues to work closely with teachers and students to establish a social/learning network to suit the needs and demands of today's classroom(s).

    I personally invite you to contact me for an opportunity to walk you through Saywire and continue this discussion.

    Thanks for the mention, I hope to hear from you.

    Josh Hoover
    Chief Technology Officer

  6. Check out what the International Baccalaureate has done to create a safe, powerful learning network for their worldwide schools. They are unveiling Aug. 30 for all IB teachers and for students in MYP and DP (middle and high school). The safety equation was important, as was having powerful tools for creation and connection. The IB paid to create this for their schools, which can use it for free. See at:

    If anyone reading this is from an IB school, contact your district IB coordinator about when and how your school can get involved. They spent a year developing this with ePals, which already had the largest learning network, with more than 600,000 classrooms in 200 countries. This makes Ning look like a soda cracker compared to a seven-course meal.
    Rita Oates, formerly ed tech director, Miami-Dade (FL) Public Schools
    VP, Education Markets, ePals Inc.