One researcher is poised to take a fascinating look at Student Information Systems and the data they collect
For all the hand-wringing, media attention, and proposed legislation over data and student privacy the academic research on the topic may just now be starting to catch up. And when it comes to the student data-collection linchpin that is the Student Information System, that research is just about nonexistent.
That’s according to William G. Staples, a sociologist, professor, and director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center at the University of Kansas. Staples has a history of researching both surveillance-related topics and also more standard sociological fare, and is the recent recipient of a small Spencer Foundation grant that will enable him to conduct some research with relevant school and public stakeholders around the SIS and how its data is being used in the interests of students. Staples recently spoke with eSchool News about his upcoming research.
eSchool News: How did you get involved in this line of inquiry? You’ve done some previous research into surveillance?
Staples: I’ve been doing that for quite some time. I founded a surveillance studies research center a year and a half ago. So I began submitting grants to foundations and others to do empirical research on different kinds or forms of social monitoring. Not necessarily straight up surveillance but different ways that often technology is used in different kinds of settings, workplaces, communities, institutions where data is collected about and people’s activities. I read about the Student Information Systems. I started looking at both the claims of the vendors that sell these systems and the academic literature, and I was finding that there are possibly a couple hundred different vendors that sell these systems to school districts. The history of some of them is that they were started out primarily from a compliance perspective. I assume compliance relative to state regulation, reporting. At least that’s what a woman who works for one of the companies that monitors everything and everything in the world of technology and schools has told me.
Some of the vendors I started reading about like Pearson and others, they were making all kinds of claims about how these systems contribute to better communication and–the word may or may not be used–but the implication that trust is built. As we would say, they’re kind of a form of social capital, so that they enhance relationships and make things better, especially related to parents, teachers, students and administrators. And then the other side of it, in the academic literature I found 0. There’s nobody looking at these and their effects. And so you have a bunch of vendors saying these systems do all these great things but they obviously have an interest in selling their product and not necessarily an objective viewpoint.
Next page: Larger privacy issues come into play
eSchool News: Do you see this kind of pilot study introducing a healthy dose of skepticism into the conversation, then?
Staples: As an academic, I say, “Show me.” We’re driven by evidence, not sales pitch. I want to understand from the perspective of a social scientist, how do these things actually operate? It’s a very small grant from the Spencer Foundation that supports research on schools. We proposed a pilot study just to say that we want to talk to people like parents, students, teachers and administrators about how they actually use it and how it functions for them, and essentially, does it build trust? Does it enhance communication? There’s literature on schools and trust and trust environment, both trust personally but also in terms of characterizing schools as being more of a trust environment vs. ones that are more antagonistic or untrustworthy. So, it’s skepticism, but it’s also saying: let’s see.
eSchool News: Could the data collection be considered as adding a layer of transparency or accountability to schools? Presumably we assume it’s accurate.
Staples: I want to stay away from value or normative judgements of whether it’s good or bad at the moment. We don’t want to make those claims ultimately anyway. Our interest is not not to to say quote-unquote whether they work or not because I don’t think we’ll be able to make those definitive types of statements.
Accuracy of data is always an issue. There’s lots in the national news and in politics right now in D.C. about data collection in schools and the privacy of it and who protects it, and these systems seem to be at the center of a lot of that. But those are very larger issues that inform the backdrop of what we’re interested in, but not specifically. If people tell us that “Yeah routinely we find that we’ve made decisions and done certain things and the data was inaccurate” or something then certainly that will become a theme or an issue that we might point to that this is a problem or a potential issue.
eSchool News: Is the data collection around the SIS tied into these larger student privacy issues?
Staples: Well, sure. I think that’s an issue, again stepping back and coming in as a sociologist: What does all this data collection do? How does this affect relationships within organizations? How’s that data used; what’s the protections involved in terms of who has access to it and what they do with it? Again, it’s not about whether it’s bad or good. The data may be terrific and it may work great and that’s fine. I just want to find out. We’re operating in a vacuum where no one’s taken a look.
eSchool News: Do you envision a larger study coming out of this pilot?
Staples: It’s too soon to tell. We’ll just have to see. We haven’t collected any data yet, but I would like to think that a larger study would come out of it one way or another.
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