Children’s privacy at risk from software used in schools

Jane Robbins of Atlanta is an attorney and senior fellow at the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank.

By Jane Robbins

Most public-school parents have heard glowing claims that “digital” or “personalized” learning will transform education, but they may not understand exactly what this means. The Georgia Senate Education and Youth Committee is now considering a bill, Senate Bill 281, that would protect parents’ right to be told what’s going on in the classroom.

Are private vendors collecting sensitive data on students via online learning platforms used in school? (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Are private vendors collecting sensitive data on students via online learning platforms used in school? (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

“Digital learning” in this context refers not to an alternative means of accessing text (such as a Kindle), but to interactive programs in which a student is given a prompt, to which he responds, which generates another prompt, and so on. Think Pavlov.

These interactive programs, marketed by private vendors, frequently use sophisticated software that collects massive amounts of highly personal information about the student’s behaviors, mindsets, and attitudes – the “21st-century” psychological skills that the government thinks he should have.

The U.S. Department of Education has released two draft reports describing in detail this brave new world of psychological profiling and brain-mapping. The first, “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance,” discusses the “affective” computing that can analyze students’ psychological attributes and emotional states as they interact with the software. The report touts the potential educational value of recording data from posture analysis, skin-conductance sensors, EEG brain-wave patterns, and eye-tracking.

The second report, Expanding Evidence: Approaches for Learning in a Digital World, lauds these programs’ psychological data-collection and urges sharing of this data with other “stakeholders” (such as other government agencies) that may have an interest.

The bottom line is that sophisticated programs owned by private corporations are collecting and analyzing highly sensitive data on children – and parents have no idea this is happening.

Nor do parents know how this data may be used in the future. The corporation may use the data for its own benefit, perhaps for developing new products. And with the “longitudinal data system” that tracks Georgia students from preschool to the workforce, imagine the breadth of such a psychological profile and the future value to certain entities – employers, law enforcement, etc. If the data exists, it’s only reasonable to assume it will be used, and perhaps in ways parents would object to.

The issue here goes far beyond data security. It is whether the government and private companies have any right to collect this highly sensitive data in the first place. SB 281 merely lets parents.know when this is happening. Who could object to that?

 

 

Reader Comments 0

6 comments
Phillyphil
Phillyphil

Let's say it again. The collection of non personalized aggregated data is not a violation of anyone's privacy. If a corporation wants to collect this type of data which is not linked to any individual and use it in exchange for providing compensation and resources to the schools, let them have it

Peter_Smagorinsky
Peter_Smagorinsky

Whatever else the strengths and weaknesses of this essay are, the author completely whiffs on Pavlov, who was interested in conditional responses ("conditioned" response is a mistranslation), not responding to cues with multiple possible responses.The examples given are in no way an illustration of Pavlov's work with dogs.

Ciedie Aech
Ciedie Aech

Years ago when I was first accosted by NCLB legislation in my low-income classroom, I heard, in a roundabout way, that the scores produced by our students might be sent (without parental knowledge or consent) to military recruiters who could then use the information to pinpoint those students they would be most likely to "sign up." (This was during the many  long years of war in Iraq, when recruiters were finding it increasingly difficult to locate new soldiers.)  I have no way to prove that this was true, but I began to wonder if our students were being targeted –– in days bent to the endless production of test scores –– by outsiders who had their own purposes in mind.  Sadly, you are now exposing this to be true.

Starik
Starik

@redweather There are all kinds of attorneys. Many do useful things. Many do not.