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.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Finding Your Bliss #beyouEDU

Once again I have the privilege of contributing to the #beyouEDU movement hosted by Dr. Will Deyamport. This month's theme is Finding Your Bliss. Dr. Will explains it in his video podcast embedded below.

As I sat down to type my reflection, it became obvious to me that my career has developed in a few directions at once. I'll always be an educator, but the means I work through have expanded. I'm in classrooms with students, in conference rooms with teachers, on internet publications through written articles and posts, and talking to larger audiences at conference, symposiums, and summits. I'm finding bliss in each of these roles, and that's why I don't mind juggling them all. It all started in the classroom with students, though.

To read the full post and learn about all four elements of my job, click here.

Dig Deep with Primary Source Deep Image Analysis

In the second of two posts I've written for the Barat Education Foundation and its TPS-Barat Teaching with Primary Sources from the Library of Congress program, I go into detail on how to get students to look closely at primary source art and photos and really think about the meaning behind the images.

In the first post, Integrating Tech: Using Skitch and Evernote to Analyze Images, I wrote about how these two tools allow students to interact with a high definition color image from history and annotate it in a way that shows personal learning.

This second post, Teaching Now: Deep Image Analysis, gets into how to pose questions to students so that they'll look closely at the images for evidence to help them find an answer. There are even examples of the questions I posed and the student work that resulted.

For instance, to help students understand why the Women's Rights Movement started in the early 19th century, I asked, "Which parts of gender roles are public and which are private?" Below, you can see how one student used an image from Godey's Lady's Book to help investigate the answer.

Do see more student work, click here to read the full post.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

EdTech's New BFFs

Open Education Resources and Formative Assessment tools are a match made in edtech heaven. 

Sound confusing? It's not.

What is OER?

More and more, teachers are moving away from traditional text books -- even the electronic versions -- and turning to open education resources (OER). OER is the acronym for high-quality open-licensed educational materials that can be found online. They are also free, which means parents can often access them at home to see what their child is learning or help support their student.  

What is formative assessment?

EduCanon allows teachers to add
questions and activities to videos so
that  students engage with the content
more actively and find out which concepts
are most important to remember.
(Image: Andrew Fondell)
Students analyze the resources and complete activities with ed tech tools like eduCanon and others. The teacher has access to live data as the students work. The teacher then shares this data with the students and they discuss what next steps are needed to reach their learning goals. Together, they make personalized plans for what they will do and how they will accomplish it. This process of learning, assessing, discussing, planning, and learning again is continuous, real-time feedback loop. It leads to deeper understanding of content and mastery of skills.

All of these definitions don't really mean much without concrete examples from teachers who have used it in their classrooms and seen their students benefit. My colleagues Andrew Fondell and Glenn Blakney generously shared some lesson examples! To find out more, click here and read my latest article with Smarter Schools Project.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Should ZERO be a part of your class?

Source: Pixabay
I was recently in a personal teacher training session regarding the use of a particular edtech tool. The purpose of the tool is to enable teachers to distribute and students to complete multimedia assignments. This is typical in my new role as an digital learning coach. The tool isn't important, but at some point during that meeting a question was posed:

What if the teacher doesn't accept late work? Is it possible for the student to access this assignment beyond the due date?

So, this would mean a student would get a zero for anything he failed to submit on time, even if he completed it a day, an hour, or a few minutes late. My immediate reaction in the moment was to respond with yet another question:

Why wouldn't a teacher accept late work? Then the student doesn't get to learn from it.

So, we chatted briefly about how different educators have different grading policies, and then moved on to continue exploring the edtech tool. But I can't help myself. I've been thinking more deeply about this question. After all, most of my posts "start with a question," right?

The Opportunity to Learn

Our students are children, and they attend school at a time in their lives in which it is developmentally appropriate, and indeed expected, for them to make mistakes. For many of them, this means making time management mistakes. During my years as a middle school teacher I spent a significant amount of time in class and after school talking about strategies and creating systems to help my students with this exact dilemma. (Dare I suggest that some of us educators are still procrastinators? Maybe? No. Not possible, right?)

So, perhaps a student makes a time management error. It is even possible that this student chronically makes this same time management error. Which is more important: teaching a lesson in time management through negative reinforcement? OR teaching the student that learning trumps mistakes, but there will be some consequences and some follow up by the adults that support him?

My hope is that you'll choose the latter. It takes more time and effort, but students will grow more as self-reliant learners because you put in that time.

Do Grades Reflect Learning?

Sometimes teachers feel pressure to assign lots of homework because their colleagues do. So they ask students to complete "review" problems or to "reread" a passage from class and answer questions. If a student does not complete this type of assignment, and earns a zero, what's the harm? Maybe the student understood the problem or passage in class. Maybe she has a lacrosse game or a play rehearsal after school, along with 5 other classes that assigned homework. Did she learn the content without the review assignment? Based on her level of understanding, does she deserve a zero averaged into her grade?

I've certainly encountered students that seem lazy at first glance, but I soon discover they are quick learners eager for a challenge. Perhaps review assignments aren't a good fit. Perhaps a zero will not teach these students the lessons we want them to learn.

I know that every student does not fit this profile. Some need the review and won't do it. But for that one that doesn't need the review. Should that strict policy apply? Should there be such a strict policy?

Does Zero Mean Worthless?

I have encountered teachers who require students to make up work for the sake of the learning, meaning the assignments are not review and are essential for understanding. But even with this requirement, a zero is averaged into the students' grade if the assignment was complete past the due date in the interest of being consistent about deadlines.

So, if grades are meant to reflect learning, should the student earn nothing for doing something? Even if that something was late?

When Kids Know There is No Zero

There are teachers and schools with "no zero" policies. Is there a benefit to student learning? Hard data is not really available just yet, but there is testimonial evidence. Some say it is a gift, especially since a zero can do damage to academic confidence, skew an overall average, or misrepresent non-graded learning that has occurred.

Others say that students realize quickly that they have a 50% even with no effort or work. It is important to note these educators are not against allowing students to earn credit for effort.

So, when kids know there is no zero possible, will they feel more free to make mistakes and engage in the learning process? Or will they feel as though they've been given permission to give minimal effort?

Be Relentless

Is it possible to have both? Can a school have a "no zero policy" and have students who are engaged, excited, and willing to make mistakes?

If grades are the only form of accountability for learning, the answer is "no." Students are not motivated by grades alone.

If class celebrations, calls home, meetings with counselors, and other forms of accountability for learning are in place... I think the answer is "yes." When students know their learning matters to the adults around them, because there is a love of learning inherent in school culture, they will be engaged. 

One teacher cannot do this alone merely because a school that has a "no zero policy." Policies do not change culture. Changes in school culture come from the way teachers treat teachers, teachers treat students, and students treat students.

Educators are a resilient bunch. We are relentlessly optimistic about the potential of our students. Let's show them this optimism by refusing to accept nothing, refusing to accept zero. If a student has nothing to turn in, talk to her, to her counselor, to her other teachers and her former teachers, to her parents, to her pastor, to anyone who cares for her. Be relentless. Her learning will never amount to zero.

Should zero be a part of your class?

Using Skitch and Evernote to Analyze Images

In cooperation with the Barat Education Foundation and its TPS-Barat Teaching with Primary Sources from the Library of Congress program, I've written a 2-part series about historical image analysis.

Part 1 was published tonight and focuses on how to use digital tools to help students analyze and annotate historical images as part of their learning. The article includes:

  • how student learning and engagement increases when they annotate digital images individually on at their desks
  • vivid examples of student work with real historical images from my classroom
  • user guides for Skitch, a powerful (and FREE) image annotation tool that is available across all mobile platforms

Click here to read the article and see sample student work.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week. It will explain the teaching method behind deep image analysis and how it can be a dynamic part of the study of primary source evidence in your classroom.