As data collection and data analysis in education grow, so do worries about student and teacher privacy. Is there enough protection?

Ellis Booker, Technology Journalist

February 26, 2013

4 Min Read

Big Data's Surprising Uses: From Lady Gaga To CIA

Big Data's Surprising Uses: From Lady Gaga To CIA

Big Data's Surprising Uses: From Lady Gaga To CIA (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Will computer-mediated instruction lead to an invasion of student and teacher privacy? Some think so.

Computers now make it possible to collect not only every test response of every student but, increasingly, each student's interaction with class material, teachers and even other students. Although some see real promise in analyzing these vast amounts of data to improve teaching and educational outcomes, others see an invasion of privacy.

Organizations ranging from the ACLU to state PTAs have entered the fray, worried that a number of data-sharing initiatives violate student and teacher privacy. Other critics simply worry about the security of so much aggregated data. Magnifying these concerns is the fact that a key piece of federal legislation about student data, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), was created before the era of email or cloud computing.

[ What should tech companies do to protect students? Read Big Data's Opportunities, Responsibilities For Education. ]

FERPA explicitly prohibits disclosure of information contained in student education records absent consent from parents, or from students age 18 or older, if they are enrolled in any post-secondary educational institution. It also requires schools to impose restrictions on vendors who have access to such records; for example, prohibiting vendor data mining of records for advertising purposes.

Earlier this month, education writer Audrey Watters blogged about a Gates Foundation-funded initiative called inBloom -- formerly The Shared Learning Collaborative -- which seeks to address interoperability issues between the various databases and software used in education. inBloom is now being piloted in nine states. "While 'personalized learning' may be the stated goal of inBloom, it's easy to see that this sort of data infrastructure can (and will) also be used to enable surveillance -- monitoring and assessing students and in turn teachers and in turn schools," Watters wrote.

Data-gathering initiatives clearly are sensitive to these issues.

Take the Predictive Analytics Reporting (PAR) Framework, a nearly two-year-old project that has been aggregating student data from two-year and four-year institutions. In nearly every public statement, PAR officials stress that their work anonymizes both student and institution. The PAR database now includes more than 1.7 million student records and 8.1 million course-level records.

Privacy is a significant concern, Ellen Wagner, executive director of WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), told InformationWeek in a phone interview. WCET launched PAR in May 2011. "We're working carefully with our institutional partners," said Wagner, on issues of data governance, including "who can touch the data."

Vendors of educational platforms must wade through these data privacy debates too. "Up until recently, schools could only collect performance data, test scores," Al Essa, director of analytics research and strategy at learning management system (LMS) vendor Desire2Learn told InformationWeek. "Now we're also able to collect engagement data -- activities, both academic and nonacademic."

For example, these systems might record when a student logs in, how long they stay, how and when they access course content and tools, and how they work on assignments.

The end goal, Essa said, is to develop an understanding of a student's strengths and weaknesses. He said this promises to improve the educational experience and even go further, such as creating recommendation engines for majors or future careers. Desire2Learn is developing both of these capabilities in its platform.

Essa said his company advises schools, before implementation of Desire2Learn, to address privacy by forming a committee to talk about data governance. "[This group] should pull people in from throughout the institution, not just the legal team," he said.

How concerned are you about the collection of student data, and the rules and regulations around its use? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the Author(s)

Ellis Booker

Technology Journalist

Ellis Booker has held senior editorial posts at a number of A-list IT publications, including UBM's InternetWeek, Mecklermedia's Web Week, and IDG's Computerworld. At Computerworld, he led Internet and electronic commerce coverage in the early days of the web and was responsible for creating its weekly Internet Page. Most recently, he was editor-in-chief of Crain Communication Inc.’s BtoB, the only magazine devoted to covering the intersection of business strategy and business marketing. He ran BtoB, as well as its sister title Media Business, for a decade. He is based in Evanston, Ill.

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