An aspect of online learning that hasn’t been getting much play in the media is how its spread will affect student privacy. Ellis Booker, writing for InformationWeek, explains that even without the online education component, schools now collect more information on their students then ever before. Introduction of technology into the process could expand collection efforts enough that serious concerns about what this data will be used for are already being raised.
Those in education believe that analyzing it could move online education forward and make it better – thereby benefiting the students in the long run. But organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and a growing number of PTA groups feel that such analysis efforts tread too far over the line and violate the privacy of both teachers and students.
Magnifying these concerns is the fact that a key piece of federal legislation about student data, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), was created before the era of email or cloud computing. FERPA explicitly prohibits disclosure of information contained in student education records absent consent from parents, or from students age 18 or older, if they are enrolled in any post-secondary educational institution. It also requires schools to impose restrictions on vendors who have access to such records; for example, prohibiting vendor data mining of records for advertising purposes.
Another issue is that this much data being out there will serve as too strong a temptation for criminals. With high-profile hacks making the news almost every month, everyone involved is concerned that the information will not be kept sufficiently safe.
At the moment, the voices raised in opposition haven’t done much to slow down the analysis efforts. On the contrary, just this month the Gates Foundation announced the creation of a new initiative – inBloom – which seeks to bridge the compatibility gaps between databases typically used to store student data.
inBloom is now being piloted in nine states. “While ‘personalized learning’ may be the stated goal of inBloom, it’s easy to see that this sort of data infrastructure can (and will) also be used to enable surveillance — monitoring and assessing students and in turn teachers and in turn schools,” Watters wrote.
Data-gathering initiatives clearly are sensitive to these issues.
Privacy is a significant concern, Ellen Wagner, executive director of WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), told InformationWeek in a phone interview. WCET launched PAR in May 2011. “We’re working carefully with our institutional partners,” said Wagner, on issues of data governance, including “who can touch the data.”