When data, privacy, and communication converge, schools are caught in the middle

Ed-tech stakeholders debate data privacy standards during SXSWedu

data-privacyStudent data holds enormous potential to inform instruction and help students take ownership of their learning, but privacy and security concerns often impede progress when it comes to using data—and developing a common set of practices and standards might help.

During a discussion at SXSWedu, panelists addressed the numerous ways in which data can be applied to teaching and learning, and they identified areas in which parents, educators, school leaders, and policymakers must work together to use valuable data while keeping sensitive information private and secure.

The idea of using educational data has become more important and high-profile in recent years, but privacy concerns have somewhat stalled the process.

States have made great strides, with planning, initiatives, and laws underway, but the education industry still is not optimally organized and often operates under outdated laws, said panel moderator Kathy Hurley, co-founder of Girls Thinking Global.

Next page: How common standards might help spur progress 

“I see incredible opportunities in the use of data. Data is a powerful tool,” said Steve Schoettler, founder of the Ed Data Privacy Consortium and CEO of the learning analytics company Junyo. “It’s not a question about whether or not we should use more data–it’s happening. Data and technology aren’t inherently good or bad; they’re tools that have to be used well, and responsibly, and safely so they can help our students.”

“There has been more progress in data principles and pledges, and increasingly we’re going to need to focus on practice, and not just standards,” said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger.

The legal environment around data use and privacy has existed for many years, and regulations predate most of the technology in use today.

Krueger outlined three important considerations as school leaders move forward using data:

1. Compliance: What do schools need to do around FERPA and COPPA when they’re in a cloud- or app-based world?

2. Aspirational practice: Simply complying with the law doesn’t mean parents, policymakers, or the media will trust school leaders. What does data use look like, in practice, in school districts? What might parents expect?

3. Communication: Even if you’re complying and are applying aspirational practice, if you don’t communicate, nothing else will fall into place. “Unless schools become more transparent with their parents and communities, none of the other processes make a difference,” Krueger said.

“All of us in the ed-tech world recognize how valuable data can be in trying to build better solutions and innovations to help kids learn better,” said Jeff Mao, senior director of learning solutions at Common Sense Media and previously the learning technology policy director for the state of Maine.

“With a lack of trust, all of that can pretty much go away. If we don’t have trust in the system, we’re going to start building walls around things, and that won’t allow innovators to build solutions that help teachers get data to help students.”

Data use has big potential in personalizing learning, especially when it comes to students using their own data.

“There are so many ways in which students are different and unique, [but] we have this one-dimensional way to rate students now, with a score on a test,” Schoettler said. “There’s an exciting opportunity to provide the teacher and student with info about the student. Every student should know what his or her strengths are, how to leverage those strengths to succeed in school, and how to be ready for college and a career.”

“Even more powerful … is data’s use for students–providing them real-time feedback,” Krueger added. “We should be much more articulate as we start talking about data privacy and take it up one level. Why do we need it, what does it give us, how does it personalize the learning experience?”

States are beginning to play a larger role in data use practices.

Federal laws aren’t quite modern enough, Mao said, and this is where states can modernize policies and processes.

States could begin by agreeing on a common set of policies and practices while at the same time allowing flexibility for each state to customize based on its individual needs.

“I think there’s some value in states being able to [create] a common baseline … there’s value in states starting to coalesce around these basic pieces. It lets the industry have space to play, but it also has a solid baseline,” Mao said.

Technology’s quick-changing nature means it often outpaces privacy laws and regulations, panelists noted.

“You have to be careful about the legal and policy environments you create, because that can impede the innovation that’s possible,” Krueger said. “What we do see here is a sense that the technology is far outpacing the policy framework around privacy. That doesn’t mean you want to throw out old laws, but there are certain things that are not clear in terms of what is possible with technology.”

Moving forward, awareness and transparent communications remain critical.

“We need a huge awareness campaign where it’s part of your normal routine to recognize the top things you have to do to maintain data privacy and security for students. As technology gets faster and better, that’s one of those practice issues we need to get to,” Mao said.

“Getting teachers, support staff, and principals all to understand data handling is a huge cultural shift that I hope happens in the very near future,” Krueger said.

Data privacy standards don’t mean everyone has to do things exactly the same, but rather, they share criteria that good policies have, set a minimum bar, and provide transparency to stakeholders, Schoettler said.

“In five to 10 years, trust in data systems could allow us to have a culture of using data for innovation, and the conversation around data would allow us to focus on using the data that matters,” he said.

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