Report: Popularity of ‘personalized learning’ could be putting student data at risk

Schools should be wary of edtech companies that aren't transparent about how they collect student data and what they do with it.
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As for-profit technology companies continue creeping into every aspect of education, everyone involved should demand greater transparency around student data collection and privacy protections, the authors of a National Education Policy Center report says.

The NEPC, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder, released its 19th annual report on trends in school “commercialism” Tuesday, focusing specifically this year on how, “in addition to the traditional goal of providing brand exposure, education technology now engages students in activities that facilitate the collection of valuable personal data and that socializes students to accept such surveillance as normal,” the report says.

The growing popularity of “personalized” learning, especially, has made students vulnerable to privacy violations. In order for educational software to provide personalized instruction and assessment, it must collect massive amounts of information on each student.

The problem, according to the authors, is no one knows how else these technology companies are using that data and information. So, by encouraging — and often requiring — students to adopt certain technologies at home and in class, districts could be unknowingly leading students into a trap.


“We’re not saying that everybody who provides educational software is trying to steal data or abuse kids,” said Faith Boninger, research associate at the NEPC. “What we’re saying is it’s not transparent and there is no real regulation around it. That’s a concern. It’s really a situation that’s ripe for abuse — and also abuse by hackers.”

Because technology is constantly evolving, and promising to reinvent American classrooms for the better, districts have been eager to adopt and integrate quickly. “There’s a general culture that is very appreciative of innovation,” Boninger said in an interview with EdScoop. “We [as a society] are hesitant to inhibit it any way.”

But such hastiness comes with risks. Each technology must be carefully evaluated and its true intentions made clear, she said, especially when some industry officials look at schools but see only dollar signs.

“We don’t want to experiment on the kids,” Boninger said. “We don’t want them to be the guinea pigs. It’s in the children’s interest to establish a framework that would allow for careful review of whatever program they’re using.”

The report includes several recommendations for moving forward, but it boils down to this: Parents, teachers and administrators need to start pushing for better standards and more transparency surrounding the technology students are using.


“We recommend that extreme caution be taken in the review of programs and that administrators demand more transparency from vendors,” Boninger said.

The NEPC also recommends the creation of state and federal policies that establish an independent, third-party entity to assess the legitimacy of educational technologies — including reviewing their algorithms — to ensure students are not harmed or threatened.

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