White House report on big data will impact ed tech

Yesterday the White House released its report on big data and privacy implications. The focus was broadly on big data, but there will be implications for ed tech, with several key recommendations specifically focused on the education sector. Specifically, there will be a push to update and revise the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA, enacted in 1974) and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA, enacted in 2000). Education Week set the context quite well in its article:

FERPA, which was written before the Internet existed, is intended to protect disclosure of the personally identifiable information contained in children’s education records. And COPPA, which requires parental consent under certain conditions for the online collection of personal information from children under age 13, was written before the age of smartphones, tablets, apps, the cloud, and big data.

Think Progress, part of a group founded by John Podesta, who also led the White House study, summarized the key findings as follows:

  1. Giving consumers more protection and control over their private data with a bill of rights

  2. Pass a singular data breach law to prevent the next Target fiasco

  3. Strengthen outdated and archaic laws, such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which dictates how the government accesses emails

  4. Give non-citizens the same privacy protections

  5. Ensure data collected on students is used only for educational purposes

Ed Tech Sections of the Report Itself:

First, there is a description of the situation in pages 24 – 26 that is too long to quote but worth highlighting:

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 stu- dents.

Later in the conclusions section of the report, pages 62 – 63, there are the relevant recommendations (quoted in full):

2. 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

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, in- creased 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.

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.

This new policy push will be important to watch over the next two years or so as it moves beyond white papers into proposed legislation or regulatory changes. My initial read is that this report is quite balanced and well-researched – it is difficult to find much to fault.

There were some cautious views voiced at EdWeek, however:

“When they say ‘modernize,’ we say, ‘build upon’ because I don’t want to get away from the privacy protections that current laws already afford,” said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer for the Washington-based nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, which filed 14 pages of comments on big data for the White House report before it was released.

Barnes viewed the report favorably, in general, but took issue with a statement that education technologies are already being deployed “with strong privacy and safety protections for students, inside and outside of the classroom.” She mentioned statewide longitudinal databases and cloud computing databases “being used every day that do not adequately protect students.”

The Software & Information Industry Association, a trade group for technology businesses, issued a statement concurring about the value of big data to support student learning. However, the group known as SIIA said, “modernizing privacy rules need not involve new legislation.”

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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