The Power of Student Data and Who Owns It

By now, it isn’t much of a secret that education is at the top of the data mining industry. While ominous data grubbers like Google and Facebook were called out on their greedy data hoarding, edtech companies came in through the cute teddy bear-shaped backroom and have been collecting large amounts of student data.

The Landscape

According to Politico, four million students in the U.S. have been tracked in some way by data analytics firms and the amount of data that edtech companies collect is more than Netflix or Facebook.

The idea behind this tracking is that edtech companies can predictively counteract problems the student may run into and assist in intervention before they get too far behind in their studies and become lost.

But, as we found out with Google’s education apps, data was also being used to turn a profit. Some edtech companies offering their services for free are actually being paid in very valuable (and private) information.

Companies like Knewton offer online textbook services and track students closely, timing hesitation and monitoring every keyboard stroke, to get inside the student’s head and figure out how they learn.

The reaction to companies like Knewton separates the two groups on student data mining. If this sounds invasive, you belong into the camp that believes student data mining can be dangerous and exploitive. If you think this could save some kids from getting lost in the very large system that is education, then you belong in the hopeful group that say this could help save kids from failing in this economy.

If you are undecided, you are like most people.

The Concerns

When inBloom was shut down by a group of concerned parents and teachers, the conversation about security and privacy in the new age of technology was brought to the forefront. Storing student data in the cloud sounded like a horrible idea to people like Barmak Nassirian, a privacy policy expert who was one of the early critics of the company.

“When people like me raise privacy objections, the answers that we get are typically security answers,” said Nassirian. “But security is about protecting data from unauthorized access and to make sure that nobody can break into the system and gain access. Privacy has to do with who gets to come in through the front door.” Nassirian said it’s a matter of judgment who should be able to gain access and to be careful not to have a free-for-all of data for anyone with semiofficial capacity.

Nassirian said cloud services that collect student data need to have security far beyond that of any average measures because of how much data is being stored. “People don’t normally target high schools for data. If you create a database in the sky with potentially a hundred billion records in it – now you’ve created a target.”

FERPA, or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, written in 1974, is what now protects student privacy, but it also gives districts the right to share student data with private companies if it furthers their educational goals.  Cloud computing is one of the reasons why FERPA is out of date, said Nassirian.

It also doesn’t protect private information in the hands of a data company. “The data is now in the custody of the private provider, education vendor, or contractor. The data will sit in a legal no-man’s-land,” said Nassirian. He said that even though the school is mandating the provision of data, the school doesn’t serve as the custodian and therefore is not always subject to ownership.

With all this data being put into the cloud or secured by private companies you would think schools would have more concern over contracts, yet Nassirian said it’s been his experience that most schools accept the contracts much like we accept the terms and conditions of iTunes.

Fordham University School of Law did a study that found 95 percent of U.S. school districts rely on cloud services and that “the practices associated with the transfer of student data were opaque. The lack of transparency for the agreements themselves and for the kinds of student data at stake in the agreements makes effective public oversight of school districts’ privacy practices extremely difficult—if not impossible.” The study also found that these agreements could be changed at any time without notice.

Edtech companies at all levels are taking advantage of data that comes their way, said Nassirian. Whether they do this in a nefarious way or not, they get data when students use their product and they could use this data to make their product better, to help their students, or to turn a profit.

Yet, there are people who see the good of data in education when used correctly.

The Benefits

Enter Aimee Rogstad Guidera, the Founder of Data Quality Campaign. She hopes to change the culture and conversation of data in schools in order not to lose the great opportunities that data can bring.

Guidera said information needs to be leveraged in a different way if we are going to ensure that every child graduates from high school ready for the demands of an increasingly competitive economy.

“The real opportunity here is not just to inform decision making, but also to personalize learning and tailor learning and that’s what’s really starting to happen across the country,” said Guidera. “With the rise of new technology we have the opportunity to literally tailor education to every kid exactly to where he or she is in the classroom and be able to provide almost instantaneous information and feedback back to that child, parent, and to the teacher.”

Guidera said this information could help teachers make sure they receive up to the minute changes in instruction to help that child succeed.

She realizes that she must first convince skeptical parents that data won’t take anything away from their children’s learning. “The first step in showing people what data can do to help education is through transparency and empowering families with all the information they need to make sure they are informed partners and advocates for their own kids.”

Guidera’s greatest hope is that the individual will get to own their own data. “This is where we’re moving – that the individual has the data and is using it themselves and is using it to make sure that they are getting the education that they need.” Guidera would like to see individuals have their own data backpack that they keep as they go through the education system, training, or the workplace.

“This is about reallocating the power from the system, which is amorphous and anonymous to really empowering individuals to make decisions that are going to drive them best,” said Guidera. She would like to empower families and give them access to information that can help them make the best decisions possible for their kids. “And we’re on the way to getting there,” she said.

The information that companies are receiving from kids is large enough to be considered big data. Information to this extent is power, and most educational advocates agree that putting the power in the right hands is what this debate is really about.


Photo credit: StockMonkeys


Related Reading:

4 Myths Surrounding the Student Data Debate

Big Data in Education: Helpful or Profitable?

US Senators Release Draft Changes to FERPA


Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.