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When he first announced Duolingo, co-founder Luis Von Ahn’s stated goal was to crowd source the translation of the internet. As the site (and subsequent application) have undergone extremely transformative development, this original goal has been tossed by the wayside. No longer do Duolingo users translate web articles for algorithms to decide which inputs are the most accurate. Instead, we have a free-to-use language learning application which overly focuses on vocabulary and rote exercises, developed mostly by computer scientists rather than trained language educators, and monetized through ads (or a paid version without ads) and high-rolling investors.

Don’t get me wrong–I’ve used Duolingo on and off since the Beta release, and I assign weekly homework through Duolingo to my middle school French students. I love the “Stories” function, and I love the community interaction. That said, Duolingo is not without its flaws and lack of essential functionality for serious language enthusiasts: almost no support for grammar, no way for a Duolingo Classroom to force audio exercises, complete decontextualization of input (outside of the “Stories”), and essentially no creativity or higher-order critical thinking for responses (again, “Stories” is a good start with some of its follow-up questions). These flaws are not enough to make me stop assigning Duolingo as a supplemental activity for middle schoolers, but the recent investment from Google parent company, Alphabet, is enough for me to take a step back and question the security of my students’ (and my own) data.

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https://www.xkcd.com/327/

Turns out that Learning Management Systems aren’t as secure as they want you to believe–SQL injection vulnerability is a pretty grievous, novice error to make for company like Blackboard.

The US Department of Education has several online resources regarding the collection of students’ personally identifiable information, and even discusses how online education platforms might collect usage metadata from all of our students–but this doesn’t violate FERPA as long as any shared metadata is not directly linked to identifiable information. So there shouldn’t be any issue with that, unless tech companies start using these data and metadata to create a profile of you, even if you don’t have an account with them.

It’s not a stretch to say that a company like Google could take all of these data and metadata from schools’ Google Apps for Education accounts and match them to personal accounts of people whose personal data match. As long as Google keeps the data for themselves (because only disclosing it would violate FERPA), there are no legal protections for any of us, especially our children, from a company that decides to use these metadata to create psychographic profiles for targeted advertising.

“Oh, so Google can show my A-student ads for colleges, and the C-student can get ads for tutoring? What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that an unscrupulous advertising firm might target students based on psychological traits rather than grades alone (which would be Huxleyan enough). Students whose schoolwork shows a lack of critical thinking, or a reactionary mindset–students who are quick to jump to conclusions just by seeing a headline without reading the whole article (or who don’t bother to read the instructions)–they might be susceptible to the kinds of propagandistic voting campaigns that a company like Cambridge Analytica boasted about.

This doesn’t even touch special education plans, disciplinary records, medical records, or even family information (some of my students’ files have had notes about their parents’ divorce arrangements). We need to start taking students’ data more seriously, otherwise they’ll have to worry about their “permanent records” for the rest of their lives.

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