Big Data Part 3: Privacy Concerns

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The concern with big data in education is the same concern with big data in other aspects of our lives. Though having certain things digitized helps us see trends faster, we don’t want everyone knowing our every move. It’s true having your medical history in a computer could get you better care or catch something before a doctor could, you still don’t want your personal information accessible to someone without your consent. The point is, you don’t want to be getting advertisements for personal health problems if you didn’t ask for it.  Some of us worry about having so much data available about our patterns and habits.  How do the same concerns apply to education?

As we’ve built up in the first two posts, big data is slowly making its way to the classrooms to improve learning. Since big data comes with technology, there is a huge, profitable market out there to develop tools and software to make sense of all this student information. So it’s worth making sure people building these tools have education in mind first.

At Gradeable, the benefits of digitizing records is almost taken for granted. Being able to better collaborate, share, replicate, and keep track of this data for better teaching. The proven benefits of collecting and analyzing data is something we will continue to discuss and advocate. However, this blog post will discuss the concerns as student finds a home in the cloud.

The current landscape of the discussion involves some big players. First is InBloom, a non-profit organization launched in March that hopes to be the student-data warehouse that provides the data for third-party developers of educational tools. FERPA is the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act which is a law designed to protect the privacy of students. In 2011, the law was changed to allow the release of student information without parental consent. Now, EPIC, the Education Privacy Information Center, is suing the Department of Education for undercutting student privacy. (If you’re interested in this, check out the Washington Post article.)

Besides identifying data like social security numbers and addresses getting in the wrong hands, the other concern is that this huge computing power will turn into a digital judgement monster that will eventually make our decisions for us. The concern is legitimate. If technology is out there that already “knows” what we’ll type into our internet search engine, who’s to say there won’t be technology that predicts how students will fare in a class without considering human will power?

The fear is that we humans will be compartmentalized by a computer that only knows our statistical data. And this brings me back to Gradeable’s foundation: It is ultimately up to teachers to make sense of student data. Again, technology is a tool. Teachers should have the power to demand privacy-functional tools, instilling a good tech-ethic among students, and not letting tech dictate everything that can happen a classroom.

As far as this data getting into the wrong hands, that’s up to the law makers, programmers, and users. The trouble is that technology is moving much faster than legislatures and regulations will take a while. The good news is that InBloom is making privacy a priority, ensuring that the vendors who make use of their data are compliant with the current regulations of each state. They know their service will never get off the ground without the promise of privacy, but it’s still a far cry from the privacy precautions this researcher goes through.

This year, both Oklahoma and New York have signed legislation into law protecting student privacy in the age of big data. Similarly, the protection of student data is on the agenda of US Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. It’s a good sign, and hopefully it get done efficiently and correctly so we can get back to better teaching.

What do you make of big data? What other questions do you have? What comes next for teachers and technology? How do you feel about the tradeoffs of digitizations and privacy? We’d love to hear your thoughts and stories about this topic.

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