On May 1, the White House released two reports on big data that were assembled at the request of President Obama.
The primary report covers the development of big data technology and its tension with privacy rights and laws. It also covers big data issues in both the public and private spheres and concludes with a variety of recommendations. There is also a second report covering the more technical aspects of big data.
This blog is focused primarily on social innovation in the social services sector, but this sector interfaces with education in many ways. Those portions of the primary report (pp. 24-27, 63-64) are reproduced below.
Learning about Learning: Big Data and Education
Education at both the K-12 and university levels is now supported inside and outside the classroom by a range of technologies that help foster and enhance the learning process. Students now access class materials, watch instructional videos, comment on class activities, collaborate with each other, complete homework, and take tests online.
Technology-based educational tools and platforms offer important new capabilities for students and teachers. After only a few generations of evolution, these tools provide real-time assessment so that material can be presented based on how quickly a student learns. Education technologies can also be scaled to reach broad audiences, enable continuous improvement of course content, and increase engagement among students. (footnote 61)
Beyond personalizing education, the availability of new types of data profoundly improves researchers’ ability to learn about learning. Data from a student’s experience in massive open online courses (MOOCs) or other technology-based learning platforms can be precisely tracked, opening the door to understanding how students move through a learning trajectory with greater fidelity, and at greater scale, than traditional education research is able to achieve. This includes gaining insight into student access of learning activities, measuring optimal practice periods for meeting different learning objectives, creating pathways through material for different learning approaches, and using that information to help students who are struggling in similar ways. Already, the Department of Education has studied how to harness these technologies, begun integrating the use of data from online education in the National Education Technology Plan, and laid plans for a Virtual Learning Lab to pioneer the methodological tools for this research. (footnote 62)
The big data revolution in education also raises serious questions about how best to protect student privacy as technology reaches further into the classroom. While states and local communities have traditionally played the dominant role in providing education, much of the software that supports online learning tools and courses is provided by for-profit firms. This raises complicated questions about who owns the data streams coming off online education platforms and how they can be used. Applying privacy safeguards like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, or the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to educational records can create unique challenges.
Just as with health care, some of the information revealed when a user interacts with a digital education platform can be very personal, including aptitude for particular types of learning and performance relative to other students. It is even possible to discern whether students have learning disabilities or have trouble concentrating for long periods. What time of day and for how long students stay signed in to online tools reveals lifestyle habits. What should educational institutions do with this data to improve learning opportunities for students? How can students who use these platforms, especially those in K-12 education, be confident that their data is safe?
To help answer complicated questions about ownership and proper usage of data, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance for online education services in February 2014.64 This guidance makes clear that schools and districts can enter into agreements with third parties involving student data only so long as requirements under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment are met. As more online learning tools and services become available for kids, states and local governments are also watching these issues closely. Schools and districts can only share protected student information to further legitimate educational interests, and they must retain “direct control” over that information. Even with this new guidance, the question of how best to protect student privacy in a big data world must be an ongoing conversation.
The Administration is committed to vigorously pursuing these questions and will work through the Department of Education so all students can experience the benefits of big data innovations in teaching and learning while being protected from potential harms.66 As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, “Student data must be secure, and treated as precious, no matter where it’s stored. It is not a commodity.”67 This means ensuring the personal information and online activity of students are protected from inappropriate uses, especially when it is gathered in an educational context.
BOX: Protecting Children’s Privacy in the Era of Big Data
Children today are among the first generation to grow up playing with digital devices even before they learn to read. In the United States, children and teenagers are active users of mobile apps and social media platforms. As they use these technologies, granular data about them—some of it sensitive—is stored and processed online. This data has the potential to dramatically improve learning outcomes and open new opportunities for children, but could be used to build an invasive consumer profile of them once they become adults, or otherwise pose problems later in their lives. Although youth on average are typically no less, and in many cases more, cognizant of commercial and government use of data than adults, they often face scrutiny by parents, teachers, college admissions officers, military recruiters, and case workers. Vulnerable youth, including foster children and homeless youth, who typically have little adult guidance, are also particularly susceptible to data misuse and identity theft. Struggling to find some privacy in the face of tremendous supervision, many youth experiment with various ways to obscure the meaning of what they share except to select others, even if they are unable to limit access to the content itself. (foonote 63)
Because young people are exactly that—young—they need appropriate freedoms to explore and experiment safely and without the specter of being haunted by mistakes in the future. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires website operators and app developers to gain consent from a parent or guardian before collecting personal information from children under the age of 13. There is not yet a settled understanding of what harms, if any, are accruing to children and what additional policy frameworks may be needed to ensure that growing up with technology will be an asset rather than a liability.
Recommendations: Responsible Educational Innovation in the Digital Age
Big data offers significant opportunities to improve learning experiences for children and young adults. Big data intersects with education in two important ways. As students begin to share information with educational institutions, they expect that they are doing so in order to develop knowledge and skills, not to have their data used to build extensive profiles about their strengths and weaknesses that could be used to their disadvantage in later years. Educational institutions are also in a unique position to help prepare children, adolescents, and adults to grapple with the world of big data.
Ensure data protection while promoting innovation in learning
Substantial breakthroughs stand to be made using big data to improve education as personalized learning on network-enabled devices becomes more common. Over the next five years, under the President’s ConnectED initiative, American classrooms will receive a dramatic influx of technology—with substantial potential to enhance teaching and learning, particularly for disadvantaged communities. Internet-based education tools and software enable rapid iteration and innovation in educational technologies and businesses. These technologies are already being deployed with strong privacy and safety protections for students, inside and outside of the classroom. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act provide a federal regulatory framework to protect the privacy of students—but FERPA was written before the Internet, and COPPA was written before smartphones, tablets, apps, the cloud, and big data. Students and their families need robust protection against current and emerging harms, but they also deserve access to the learning advancements enabled by technology that promise to empower all students to reach their full potential.
RECOMMENDATION: The federal government should ensure that data collected in schools is used for educational purposes and continue to support investment and innovation that raises the level of performance across our schools. To promote this innovation, it should explore how to modernize the privacy regulatory framework under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to ensure two complementary goals: 1) protecting students against their data being shared or used inappropriately, especially when that data is gathered in an educational context, and 2) ensuring that innovation in educational technology, including new approaches and business models, have ample opportunity to flourish.
Recognize digital literacy as an important 21st century skill
In order to ensure students, citizens, and consumers of all ages have the ability to adequately protect themselves from data use and abuse, it is important that they develop fluency in understanding the ways in which data can be collected and shared, how algorithms are employed and for what purposes, and what tools and techniques they can use to protect themselves. Although such skills will never replace regulatory protections, increased digital literacy will better prepare individuals to live in a world saturated by data. Digital literacy—understanding how personal data is collected, shared, and used—should be recognized as an essential skill in K-12 education and be integrated into the standard curriculum.