Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Big Data goes to grade school

I haven't been posting many blog entries lately because I've been busy editing a book on pervasive computing. More on that later.

For today, I've got something that isn't quite in the main stream of this blog: Data aggregation on K-12 students.

The quotations in this entry are from an article by Stephanie Simon and published by Reuters, "K-12 student database jazzes tech startups, spooks parents" (March 3, 2013).

I'll start with the up side: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others have developed "a $100 million database built to chart the academic paths of public school students from kindergarten through high school." A newly created nonprofit organization, inBloom Inc., will run the database.

School districts will be able to use the database free of charge (for now). This one database will be able to integrate a school's student data in one place. "Schools tend to store different bits of student information in different databases, often with different operating systems." This is inefficient on its face, and it makes it difficult for schools to provide instruction tailored to the abilities and interests of students.

Seven states are already signed up, and the larger the pool of school districts, the more useful the database will be. Creators of educational technologies will be able to mine the database and create better education packages, including custom packages for states, school districts, individual schools, clusters of students (sports fans, say, or those who struggle with math), and even individuals.

Just think of the possibilities. With several states using the same platform for data, there will be huge incentive for technology companies to get on the band wagon. It seems likely that better and less expensive applications will appear quickly.

This all sounds great, and if it is handled properly, it might be truly wonderful. But if there weren't a down side, I wouldn't be writing about it.

In order to exploit the database, corporations will have to have access to all of this student data.
In operation just three months, the database already holds files on millions of children identified by name, address and sometimes social security number. Learning disabilities are documented, test scores recorded, attendance noted. In some cases, the database tracks student hobbies, career goals, attitudes toward school - even homework completion.
What about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the U.S. Department of Education's regulation to protect student privacy and is known to make it difficult for families paying their children's college tuition to see the kid's grades? Apparently it's no obstacle.
Federal officials say the database project complies with privacy laws. Schools do not need parental consent to share student records with any "school official" who has a "legitimate educational interest," according to the Department of Education. The department defines "school official" to include private companies hired by the school, so long as they use the data only for the purposes spelled out in their contracts.
It's not hopeless: "Local education officials retain legal control over their students' information" and the database "gives school administrators full control over student files, so they could choose to share test scores with a vendor but withhold social security numbers or disability records." Still, there are reasons for concern.
"Once this information gets out there, it's going to be abused. There's no doubt in my mind," said Jason France, a father of two in Louisiana.

While inBloom pledges to guard the data tightly, its own privacy policy states that it "cannot guarantee the security of the information stored ... or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted." [ellipsis in original]
So it looks like schools and states will be depending on the good character of corporations with dollar signs in their eyes to handle student information in a responsible and safe manner.

Did I mention that the database infrastructure was built by Amplify Education, a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp?

How do you think that will work out?

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

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