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Online Education Run Amok?

Massive open online courses, first envisioned as a way to democratize higher education, have made their way into high schools, but Washington is powerless to stop the flood of personal data about teenage students from flowing to private companies, thanks to loopholes in federal privacy laws.

Universities and private companies this fall unveiled a slew of free, open-access online courses to high school students, marketing them as a way for kids to supplement their Advanced Placement coursework or earn a certificate of completion for a college-level class.

But when middle and high school students participate in classes with names like “Mars: The Next Frontier” or “The Road to Selective College Admissions,” they may be unwittingly transmitting into private hands a torrent of data about their academic strengths and weaknesses, their learning styles and thought processes — even the way they approach challenges. They may also be handing over birth dates, addresses and even drivers license information. Their IP addresses, attendance and participation in public forums are all logged as well by the providers of the courses, commonly called MOOCs.