Hey Alexa - Are You Allowed in My Classroom?

by Melissa Thiel Collar, Attorney, Legal Counsel - Green Bay Area Public School District

With the proliferation of voice assistants such as the Amazon Echo or Dot and Google Home, educators have begun to explore how to use these devices in classrooms and not just their living rooms.  A quick internet search of “Alexa in the Classroom” results in a number of web links to various teachers touting the benefits of these devices in the classroom.  However, this search is only half of the story when it comes to using these devices in the classroom.  A second search, that for “Alexa and FERPA Compliance,” results in a number of web links to various articles detailing the concerns for student privacy and the inability to filter internet access when using these devices. For the reasons noted below, K-12 school districts are declining to permit voice assistants in classrooms.

To better understand why these devices pose compliance concerns, it is helpful to understand the technology behind the devices.  Jason Hong, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute describes their use as follows

...Amazon’s devices don’t really record until a person says the keyword. He thinks Google’s devices probably work in a similar way.

Hong adds that the devices are always listening for the keyword that prompts them to execute a command. He says that data is probably stored at least partially on the devices themselves, just enough to determine if you used the keyword. 

Once the devices think you’re done with a query, they'll ‘ship off that command, or that voice, over to the [company’s] servers to process it and then execute whatever demand there is.’

Hong points out that whenever data is being stored, there will always be questions surrounding how that data can be used. If voice assistant devices are used in the classroom, there’s a risk that people outside that classroom, such as parents, principals or superintendents, will want to see the dialogue history.

From, Nazerian, Tina, “Do Voice Assistant Devices Have a Place in the Classroom?” July 11, 2018.  

Another commentator noted that both “Amazon and Google have a basic business model of collecting data on users to build profiles on them and target them with advertisements.” In addition, these systems are hackable and there has been documented malfunctions and re-disclosures of such information. Herold, Benjamin, “Teacher's Aide or Surveillance Nightmare? Alexa Hits the Classroom,” June 26, 2018.

At a 2018 national conference for International Society for Technology in Education, a technology integrator asked an Amazon representative whether or not Alexa should be used in the classroom.  The Amazon representative’s unequivocal answer was no, stating that Alexa and the Dot were not intended for the classroom as the devices posed compliance and privacy issues.  Below is a brief explanation of these compliance issues. 

FERPA (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act)20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99

FERPA protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to schools that receive funds from the U.S. Department of Education.  In most cases, schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student's education record. In addition, FERPA prohibits a company that receives educational records to use the records for a purpose other than the reason it is being disclosed. This law was written in 1974 with no significant revisions since then, and obviously was not written when voice activation devices existed or even were imagined.  

In certain circumstances, a recording of a student’s voice may constitute an education record under FERPA as well as a pupil record under the companion Wisconsin law, Wis. Stat. § 118.125. As such, the District is required to have a parent’s permission to release this information to the companies operating the devices.  But even if parent permission were able to be obtained, both Amazon and Google have made clear that the data stored from use of its devices are used for various purposes, including the marketing to users.  Such action is prohibited, making such devices unable to be used in classrooms.

COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act),15 U.S.C. §§ 6501–6505

COPPA gives parents control over what information websites can collect from their children. COPPA requires a website company to provide parental notification and obtain parental permission before they can allow a child under the age of 13 to register for an account with them and collect any of their personally identifiable information. COPPA explicitly treats “voice” as personally identifiable information.  

If a device is not intended for classroom use and instead could be used for a “commercial purpose,” the device can be used to collect data for advertisements and collect data to be used for purchasing a product.  The Amazon and Google devices were not intended for classroom use.  COPPA requires that in order to use such a device with students under the age of 13, parent permission is required.  

CIPA (Children’s Internet Privacy Act) ,47 U.S.C. § 254

CIPA addresses concerns about children's access to obscene or harmful content over the Internet at schools and libraries and imposes requirements on schools or libraries that receive E-rate funds to ensure that children are not accessing prohibited content. Schools cannot receive E-rate funding unless they certify that they have an Internet safety policy that includes technology protection measures which must block or filter Internet access and include monitoring of the online activities of minors. 

Voice assistants require that the device be connected through Wifi to the internet.  At this time, there is no way to monitor and filter student use of the devices when connected to a school district’s Wifi. As a result, it is possible that student use of a voice activation device could result in access to content prohibited by CIPA.  When a school district applies for E-rate funding, it must certify that it has measures in place to be CIPA compliant.  Use of such devices would bring a school district out of compliance with CIPA which could result in a loss of E-rate funding.   


Beyond the legal compliance concerns, and probably more important, commentators have raised ethical concerns about the use of these devices in the classrooms.  One individual noted, “Imagine… an immigrant student whose parents are undocumented and subject to potential deportation.  How might that child feel knowing that everything they say in their classroom is being recorded and stored on third-party servers that his school might have little control over?” And another, “When you make decisions about using these tools, you’re making them on behalf of everyone in the room. Think about your most vulnerable, most marginalized students and the impact these kinds of surveillance technologies can have on them and their families.”  

While at this time voice assistants do not comply with the laws noted above, the tech industry knows the value of introducing its devices to children at young ages.  Thus, there is an incentive for these companies to determine ways to make these devices FERPA, COPPA and CIPA compliant so that they can be adapted for school use.  School districts should continue to monitor and review these developments.


*This article was written by Attorney Melisa Thiel Collar.  The views expressed herein are exclusively those of Ms. Thiel Collar.  This article was designed to provide general authoritative information and commentary as a service to AWSA members. It should not be relied upon as legal advice. You are encouraged to contact your district legal counsel should you require legal advice regarding this topic.  You may also direct your Level I legal questions to Malina Piontek at 608-497-3037 or [email protected]

Read more at:


Elementary Edition - Secondary Edition - District Level Edition