Friday, September 25, 2015

Some Data & Privacy Basics for Educators

This week I had the opportunity to attend and participate in the National Student Privacy Symposium in Washington D.C. The room was filled with policy-makers, parent advocates, edtech executives, and lawyers. But only a few educators were in attendance. The data privacy landscape is complicated, and there is little information out there packaged for educators to help them navigate this complex issue. This post is meant to help define and explain some of the topics of discussion and debate, but it is by no means exhaustive.

1. Not All Student Data is Created Equal

When data in schools is discussed, educators should remember that it is about much more than test scores. Here are some broad categories:

  • Health/Ability = medical information, allergies, physical and intellectual disabilities, individual education programs, accommodations
  • Behavioral = disciplinary records, behavioral intervention plans, notes on behavior
  • Academic = grades, test scores, progress reports
  • Directory = name, age, address
Again, these categories are not meant to be exhaustive, but they do help identify the wide variance of data that is collected by schools. Some of this data is quite specific and sensitive while some is relatively well-known even outside of school. Parents, communities, and schools have varying levels of comfort with sharing different types of data about the children they care for and educate. So, when reading about data privacy and protection, be sure to identify which types of data are on the table.

2. We Need Student Data

Kati Haycock, President of the Education Trust and the symposium's opening keynote speaker, talked a great deal about why we need student data and what it has revealed when it is examined. She asserted 5 main areas where data is needed in education.

  1. We need data to know where we are - where we are making progress, and where we are not.
  2. We need data to monitor gaps in opportunity that need attention.
  3. Data helps dispel myths - and identify schools, districts, and states that we should celebrate and learn from.
  4. Data helps us determine what is working and what is not.
  5. Good data, together with good technology can help us personalize the learning experiences of our students - but also let us know when such customization isn't working.
Kati provided evidence of how tracking data has helped states, districts and teachers respond better to community and student needs. Her presentation can be found at

3. Be Aware of Potential Breaches, But Don't Be Afraid

How do we find out what the data is telling us about progress, gaps, personalizing learning, and the other important areas Kati talked about in her keynote? This is the role of researchers. At the symposium, one panel was specifically focused on how schools and states are sharing student data with researchers to help improve education practice and technology. Of course, though, questions came up during the panel from concerned privacy advocates about whether there is potential for a breach when student data is shared. Parents are eager to know how their child's data is secured, who has access to it, and how it is being used. Schools should be transparent about this.

In reality, breaches are extremely rare and are typically not due to malicious intent. Mostly, they happen because of human error, and even these cases are few in number for a few reasons:

  • States create scrambled IDs for each researcher in each project in order to prevent identification at an individual level. Additionally, researchers can never see how the scrambled IDs connect to the actual student.
  • It is impossible for a researcher to find identifying data unless she knows exactly who she is looking for and has years of longitudinal information to match variables.  
So, if an investigative reporter wants to dig into the data of an individual like a political candidate, it is possible. But that reporter would require a deep understanding of data storage systems and a great deal of time -- months or even years -- dedicated to sifting through it.

With all of this in mind, remember that there is little value for hackers in breaching educational data. Hackers are focused on making money, and educational data has little to no monetary value.

4. The Power of Data for Student Learning

Most student data created in schools today is through the use of technology. As with many new trends in education, mobile technology is not a silver bullet.  So, this section should be prefaced with an important point:
An ineffective teacher does not become more effective because he is given technology, but a student in that teacher's class will have access to more resources and tools to help her learn if she is given technology.
Let's start with best practices for effective teachers. With the help of mobile technology in classrooms teachers collect meaningful data on their students every day. My favorite combination of technology for this is open education resources (OER) and digital formative assessment tools. I believe in this pair so much that I spoke about them at the symposium and wrote an article about them recently for Smarter Schools Project. Here's the thing -- the teacher who uses these tools to collect data must know what to do with that information in order for students to see a benefit.

  • make sure the formative assessment is low stakes, so students know it is ok to make mistakes
  • share the data with the students right away, so interventions prevent development of misunderstandings immediately
  • give students time to understand the data and then change their thinking so they can get it right
So, as that "important point" above indicates, if the teacher does not use the data in an effective way -- according to the three guidelines -- the technology of OER and formative tools will not make him a more effective teacher. However, if his students have access to better resources due to OER and get to experience various types of assessments because of the formative tools, those students are better off than some whose teachers might not be using technology at all.

5. There are Places to Learn More

If all of this feels like information overload, don't worry. There are plenty of resources out there to help teachers get a sense of the legal and educational landscape. For now, most of them are created for parents and edtech companies. They do help teachers understand the context for the student data and privacy discussion, though. Here are a few I recommend:

A Parents' Guide to Student Data Privacy from ConnectSafely
Beyond the Fear Factor: Parental Support for Technology and Data Use in School from Future of Privacy Forum
Student Privacy Pledge from Future of Privacy Forum and Software & Information Industry Association
Comparison of 2015 Federal Education Data Privacy Bills from National Association of State Boards of Education
Privacy Technical Assistance Center from the Office of Education Technology at the U.S. Department of Education

We are all getting used to the idea that there are no easy answers, but it is important for educators to get a feel for the complexities and benefits of collecting and using student data. Whichever policies are enacted, teachers and the students in their classrooms will feel the impact. Educators must be a part of the discussion.