Web cookies, Google Analytics get a close look from CoSN

The group, made up of K-12 technology leaders, offers best practices for school districts concerned about online tracking and privacy.

Patience Wait
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Patience Wait Contributing Writer

Patience Wait is a freelance writer and former journalist, covering the information technology market for industry-leading trade sites. She has won...

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The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has released two briefs outlining the fundamentals of online tracking and privacy for edtech leaders concerned about their implications for both students and schools.

One brief discusses the prevalence of “cookies” and the privacy issues they can raise. The second brief addresses the common use of Google Analytics by schools and how to ensure it is being used appropriately.

“Online tracking and school privacy have become intertwined issues in school districts. There is an increasing range of tracking technologies used in a variety of ways, which has muddled the landscape for schools,” Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN, a nonprofit professional association made up of district technology leaders, said in a statement. “The new briefs clarify these important matters and give school leaders helpful ways to handle both.”

While the two briefs are restricted to CoSN members, the consortium has provided a summary available to the public.

The first brief explains that, broadly speaking, there are two primary categories of cookies:

  • “Functional cookies” allow a site to identify a visitor and his/her device; these are what make it possible to stay logged in to a site on multiple visits, maintain account preferences, or save the contents of shopping carts until checkout.
  • “Tracking cookies” are most commonly used by third parties operating on a website; they track the user across unrelated sites, services and sometimes devices. They’re most commonly used for advertising and marketing reasons, as demonstrated when a user visits a site looking for a product, then starts seeing ads for that product or related products while online on other sites.

There are other kinds of tracking technology, but cookies are the most common.

“There’s been a lot of information put out lately about tracking on school websites [and] what the privacy implications might be. It’s a very complicated topic, a very technical topic,” Linnette Attai, project director of CoSN’s Protecting Privacy in Connected Learning and Trusted Learning Environment program, told EdScoop.

“It’s important to cut through the noise and have the facts to make [the appropriate] decisions about using tracking … while being mindful of your users’ privacy,” she added. “It’s also important to understand that this is [just one] corner of what otherwise needs to be a holistic look at privacy practices.”

Google Analytics, the topic of the second brief, “is one of the most prevalent measurement and analytics services, in use in 70 percent of the top 1 million websites [according to Medium.com],” the summary states. “It can provide information on a website’s or app’s visitors, including number of unique and repeat visitors, referring sites, most frequent pages visited, what browser a visitor is using, ISP speed, and average time spent on a site or app. For a school system, this information can inform a decision to shift to a mobile-first strategy or (along with ISP speed) indicate requirements when adopting educational technologies, or aid in understanding the effectiveness of a district’s communication strategy.”

CoSN offers several recommendations for addressing privacy concerns when working with Google Analytics, especially when students may use a website or mobile app, including:

  • Awareness of the school system’s Google Analytics settings.
  • Following any Google-required disclosures and conditions on the school’s website privacy policies.
  • Considering use of Google Analytics’ IP Address masking feature.

CoSN recommends conducting “a regular audit of major instructional and administrative systems, as well as [the] district website” in order to get a handle on the district’s use of trackers, the summary concludes, along with making sure the school or district website privacy policy discloses the presence of tracking technologies.

“The information here, and the requirements, are not specific to schools. Any company, any organization that has a website needs to be aware,” Attai said. For schools, “this is to build awareness in the entire ecosystem, for anyone in a school system working with the back end of a website. Ultimately it’s not just the coder who has responsibility. It’s anyone who’s adding to or changing anything on the website, so they can do it well.”

Reach the reporter at pwaitster@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @edscoop_news.

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Education IT News, K-12, CoSN, privacy, Google Analytics, cookies

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