Privacy policies can conflict with personalized learning, but they don't have to, NASBE finds


There does not have to be tension between implementing personalized learning for students and safeguarding those same students’ privacy through data protection policies, says a new report from the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).

The report, “Advancing Personalized Learning through Effective Use and Protection of Student Data,” argues that state policymakers — legislators as well as school boards — can develop laws, regulations and policies that allow effective use of data by schools, teachers, parents and students. But a number of states have instead enacted policies that hamper the use of data that would improve personalized learning programs.

Authors William Tucker and Don Long reviewed policies in Louisiana, Kansas and California that address privacy concerns without interfering with the use of student data in the classroom. In Louisiana, parents and students have the right to opt-in on the use of biometric information, while Kansas provides an opt-out. California puts the burden of strict compliance on third-party vendors, among other measures.

The report cites a 2017 RAND study that looked at outcomes for schools that had implemented personalized learning. “The schools with the most improved student outcomes were those that implemented all of the following: grouping students by data to meet their needs, using data to engage students in reflection of their learning progress and goals, and providing environments that supported the personalized learning model,” the NASBE report states.

But creating good privacy policies that allow the use of data for personalized learning is not enough to guarantee the success of such initiatives, the authors note.

One major obstacle is the inequality among school systems.

“Compared with their more advantaged peers, high-poverty and minority students in the United States are more likely to be food insecure, more fearful for their safety inside and outside of school, and face higher levels of educator turnover that deprive them of consistent adult relationships in school,” the report says. “Along with higher levels of need, they experience limited access to high-quality leaders, teachers and other staff, as well as infrastructure and programs, a situation that poses significant obstacles to personalizing learning using best practices. The renewed interest and experimentation in personalized learning must be grounded in fully addressing these equity challenges.”

The challenges are familiar ones, among them:

  • Expanding and improving high-speed broadband connectivity.
  • Developing state data systems to collect baseline and longitudinal data to measure student growth over time.
  • Ensuring content, learning materials and professional development resources created with public funds are available as online educational resources (OER).
  • Including OER on approved state instructional materials lists.

A necessary prerequisite at the state level to implementing data protection policies that can advance personalized learning is to establish a definition for personalized learning, the report notes.

“The lack of clarity in defining personalized learning is consequential,” the authors write. “It impedes policy development and alignment across all components of an education system — curriculum, materials, assessment, accountability, and leaders and teachers — which are needed for scaling and sustainability.”