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The Ants Go Marching One-by-One: The Steady Creep of Student Data Mining

Posted by on in Education Policy
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When parents learned of inBloom’s plans to create a massive data base of student data to be used by venture capitalists to exploit a child’s personal information, they waged a campaign to stop the organization in its tracks. Most importantly, parent were successful. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story or efforts by corporations to capture student data. As Natasha Singer points out in a New York Times article, “Scores of education technology start-ups, their pockets full from a rush of venture capital, are marketing new digital learning tools directly to teachers — many are even offering them free to get a foothold in schools.” Unwittingly, teachers, succumbing to the lure of free apps and educational software that promises innovation and a wealth of resources, may be inadvertently sharing student data with corporations or even unscrupulous hackers.

Parent Tony Porterfield was alarmed to learn that much of the software being marketed to schools and teachers contains “glaring security problems,” often with unencrypted personal information. Porterfield has made it his personal mission to test sites and notify education tech companies of possible security weaknesses. Some of the companies have responded and made attempts to strengthen security measures, but too many have not. Lapses in student data protection are, according to some technology experts, widespread across the education technology sector.

So, while parents may have been successful in stopping the behemoth inBloom last year, the steady creep of student data mining continues, like the march of thousands of ants in their quest to one-by-one capture bits and pieces of data and, as the children's song goes, take it “down to the ground” – the nebulous inner sanctum of student information. So where does all this data ultimately end up? That’s the million dollar question – because that data is potentially worth a great deal of money for corporations.

School districts, charged with ensuring student privacy laws, are left with the dilemma of trying to monitor the software marketed to schools to ensure that it will not inadvertently - or worse - purposefully violate federal FERPA laws. However, with more and more private companies providing iPads, personal computers, and software for students, it is increasingly difficult to monitor the usage of free apps that can act as a “Trojan horse” to capture personal data that can be disseminated to corporations.

So what can teachers and parents do to protect student data?

1) Be very cautious when offered free apps or considering the use of any educational technology software. While many apps provide excellent resources, any site that asks you to create log-ins and passwords for you and your students/children should be highly scrutinized. Ask your district to research the site to determine if it is secure. Do your own research, too. If the software sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Who owns the software and who has access to its data?

2) Teachers, Invite your parents to visit your classroom so that they are aware of the technology you use with their children. If the software requires students to log in, provide parents with the passwords so that they can access the sites at home as well. Many parents are rightfully cautious about social media and their parental concerns do not end there. When schools and teachers are transparent in your use of apps and software, students benefit from two fire walls of protection in guarding their personal information and data.

More than ever before, parents and teachers should be aware that their children and students are seen as a source of profit for the private sector.   A proactive and transparent approach by schools and teachers is essential in protecting against the misuse of student data by private venture capitalists to exploit the education sector and line their pockets. Our students deserve nothing less. Data is not destiny. Therefore, adults have the responsibility to ensure that children’s data, whether it is their social security number and address, or their career aspirations in the second grade, or even their ability to do long division in the fourth grade, does not end up in the hands of a corporation, a college recruiter, or a marketing company.

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Guest Monday, 24 October 2016