Blog: The Educated Reporter

Student Data Privacy: Politics and Practicalities

One of the most contentious topics in education news today may also one of the least understood: student data policy.

People who want to tighten laws and procedures around sharing student data with online learning providers say they students are being targeted by advertisers and others with nefarious intent. Those who want to use student information to customize their learning online say the worries are exaggerated and proposed laws will get in the way of personalized student learning.

Ben Herold, who covers education technology for Education Week and writes frequently on this topic, did his best to keep the discussion focused on the facts during a session in May on data privacy at the EWA conference in Nashville. A perusal of his work on this subject may be as instructive as attending this session, but perhaps not as entertaining as the back-and-forth debate in Nashville.

Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart called the backlash over data privacy during the past 18 months “dangerous” and warned the bills being debated in Congress and statehouses across the nation will have unintended consequences.

“Privacy and personalization can cohabitate,” Vander Ark said, but that will take some thoughtful collaboration.

Khaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said she agreed that privacy and personalization can coexist but she disagreed with Vander Ark on almost every other aspect of the debate over student data privacy.

“There’s not enough oversight, and there’s not enough accountability,” Barnes said. “Who’s to say someone can’t use the information for nefarious purposes.”

She spoke of commercial sites— not  education programs—targeting  students for specific advertising, and said she worried about student records living forever on the Internet, so that someday someone could look up an adult’s school discipline file from elementary school. Barnes said all kinds of information is being collected about students, but the kids and their parents don’t know what it’s being used for.

Vander Ark said Barnes was taking a leap in logic by focusing on advertising concerns because education technology companies do not advertise or market to their students.

“We have to be careful with scenarios we concoct that do not have any connection with reality,” Vander Ark said.

Greg Mortimer of Denver Public Schools spoke about the school district’s problems trying to connect student data into one file to make it easier for teachers and administrators to track how students are doing. The district was caught up in the controversy over cloud data storage website inBloom.

Mortimer said the district has learned a lot about student data privacy and expected they would continue to learn. He said he didn’t disagree with anything either VanderArk or Barnes had to say.

“We are very interested in using technology to innovate. There is a huge demand for data to personalize education and close the achievement gap,” Mortimer said. But he also acknowledged that data security is a huge concern.

The Denver school district wanted to use inBloom to take 15-20 sets of data about students, from their grades to their parent contact numbers, and combine them into one database that teachers could easily access. The process was too complex to do within the district walls and inBloom seemed like a good solution. When people started questioning the district’s contract with the website, however, Denver and other districts pulled out of the inBloom pilot project.

“This is a subject that is very nuanced and very complicated,” Mortimer cautioned reporters interested in diving in.

Here are some more ways to learn more about his topic:

  • The Data Quality Campaign is tracking 98 bills in 33 states concerning data policy. Eleven were recently passed into law in Florida, Kentucky, New York, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota, West Virginia and Maine. They keep track of this fast moving debate here.
  • The U.S. Department of Education recently published guidelines on preserving student data privacy. 


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