Embrace Personalization and Privacy

Privacy remains a national and educational headline issue–for some valid and some self serving reasons. National security and credit card scandals raised the visibility of privacy. Self-inflicted wounds of ill-conceived data ventures didn’t help.
Attack blogs and sensational press have created more heat than light. A case in point is a recent Politico article that screams about potential problems of marketing burger ads to kids but admits there haven’t been any problems. Stefanie Simon, known for harvesting out of context quotes, opens the piece with an utterly ridiculous claim, “The NSA has nothing on the ed tech startup known as Knewton.” Jose’s hyperbole doesn’t help, but Simon has a track record of making the worst case possible.
It’s likely that if schools and vendors maximize personalization without considering privacy there will be unintended consequences. But conversely, if privacy advocates succeed in locking down data without considering personalization, there will also be unintended consequences.
Following the introduction of about 100 bills in state capitals, senators Markey and Hatch released a “discussion draft” amendment to FERPA. Addressing privacy as a national issue obviously makes more sense than having 50 different approaches. However, like many of the EPIC and Common Sense bills floating in state capitals, this bill includes automatic deletion language, similar to a California bill (discussed here), that requires schools to destroy data when kids leave the class.
Kill switch. The bills that demand deleting data when a student leaves the classroom pose three potential problems:

  • Transfers: Nonprofit MIND Research Institute is transforming math instruction with a visual game-based program that has supported impressive gains in more than a dozen city initiatives. One under-appreciated benefit of the citywide initiatives is that when a student moves from one school to another they can pick up where they left off. The kill switch provisions means that kids start over on on every app every time they move.
  • Portable records: Like health records, students should have a portable education record that allows teachers to personalize learning from day one–that’s the premise of the Digital Learning Now SmartSeries paper Data Backpacks, Portable Records & Learner Profiles. The kill switch provisions eliminates the potential for portable education records.
  • Parent management: The Department of Education’s My Data Button initiative has for two years encouraged districts to make student data available to parents so that they can manage a comprehensive student record. The kill switch provisions makes it less likely that parents will get data or be able to use it to share information with a tutor, an after school program, or a new teacher.

The feds issued guidance in February and set up a Privacy Technical Assistance Center. They recommend that districts approve the instructional resources that teacher use–something that made sense five years ago but isn’t realistic given the explosion of apps and resources. Whether there is an approved list or not, districts should find out what teachers are using by conducting a quick online curriculum audit (e.g., Curriculum Insight asks teachers to list and rate the resources they actually use).
The enterprise view where districts approve everything is supported by entrenched enterprise software vendors but it is anti-teacher and anti-innovation. A better solution would be a voluntary standard that providers could adopt that would signal that they will only use data for educational purposes and they will destroy or anonymize data when it’s is no longer likely to be useful to parents or teachers.
On advertising concerns, in all of my work with EdTech companies, I don’t see any businesses with an interest in marketing to kids–this strikes me as another solution in search of a problem. Policy makers should be cautious not to unwittingly ban traditions like Scholastic book fairs. They should also consider the growing use of recommended playlists that mix open and proprietary content–they don’t market to students but they could be limited by unintended consequences that make it more difficult to build and maintain learner profiles.
The Data Quality Campaign is a great resource on this topic and strikes the right balance, “Policymakers and district and school leaders should create and implement policies to minimize risk and protect privacy, security, and confidentiality while maximizing effective data use to improve student achievement.”
I’m discussing personalization and privacy at the Education Writers Association conference in Nashville today (#EWA14).
New tools and schools that personalize learning represent the best opportunity we have to boost achievement levels in America and extend access to quality education worldwide. It is entirely possible to embrace personalization and privacy-new policies should embrace both.
For more on privacy, see:

MIND Research, Digital Learning Now, and Six Red Marbles are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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