Why is student data both exciting and daunting?

Student data privacy is an arena of education that is both daunting and exciting. Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University recently published "Student Privacy: The Next Frontier." Professor Urs Gasser and Fellow Paulina Haduong, among others, undoubtedly put incredible research into this project. Their work included reading proposed policy, talking with experts in law, classroom practice, and policy writing, and much more.

Their report led me to start thinking about how the discussion needs to continue. It also needs to be balanced with all parties maintaining an open mind of both the benefits and risks of collecting and analyzing student data.

Why is student data daunting?

In a reality where data breaches are regularly in the news (see Home Depot and Anthem) there is understandable concern from parents and educators about whether the personal information of our children could be compromised. Edtech companies collect and store information about our schools, teachers, and students. School districts have moved from rows of file cabinets to servers of data in order to store student test scores, transcripts, and discipline records. Which is more secure? File cabinets could be destroyed in fires or floods. Servers could be breached by hackers. Here's the thing -- A plane could crash, a natural disaster could destroy homes, the list goes on. We still fly in planes despite this risk. We still purchase homes, the most expensive investment most individuals undertake, despite this risk. Why? We have decided that, based on a risk/benefit analysis, we are willing to enjoy the benefits and take on the risk that one of those unfortunate occurrences will pass us by. The vast majority of plane passengers make it to their destinations safely without much fanfare. The vast majority of homeowners incur typical upkeep and improvement expenses, but do not lose it all in a natural disaster. Perhaps student privacy should be approached from the same mindset. What is the acceptable risk? For each parent/student/educator/school/government entity the answer might be slightly different. The point is that the risk/benefit analysis is where the discussion should start.

Why is student data exciting?

As a classroom teacher, the ability to create and analyze data about my students' understanding and learning has completely changed my teaching practice. Instantaneously, I can collect data from my students using apps like Socrative or Formative and then adjust my lesson to include the interventions students need. For planned assessments I can use ScribeSense to track and share student data with school administrators and parents in order to show student progress. Showing longer-term growth can be accomplished using standardized testing data and student digital portfolios from year to year. If I have a student who is showing a disconnect between class performance and assessment performance 3 weeks into the fall semester, data records from previous school years allow me to gain deeper understanding of that child's learning history and needs. Then I can respond sooner and more effectively. In conjunction with clear home-school communication, this can be a game-changer in the education of a child.

Why is Berkman's emphasis on student voice notable?

12 of the 22 pages of the Berkman report are comprised of first-hand student accounts, experiences, concerns, and reflections on data and privacy. Too often, when policy about education is written and enacted, students are not included in the conversation. The reality is that those in the adolescent-teen generation are experts in their own right in this arena. While they may not fully understand all implications of their interactions and shares online, they are active participants. More often than not, they are unwilling to give up the benefits of these online connections even if they learn about the risks. Shouldn't they be an equal voice with all others in the discussion that will eventually determine policy around their behavior? Even if schools are forced to crack down by legal decisions, our students will be actively sharing and communicating online on their own devices during and outside of school hours.

So how do we find a balance of risks and benefits? By writing this post I do not claim to cover or even understand all of the implications of student data privacy.  I have much to learn and there are no easy answers but, as Berkman seems to implicitly encourage, the discussion should continue with all voices included.


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