Education

Understanding and Protecting Student Data

Last weekend, the New York Times ran a story “Deciding Who Sees Students’ Data,” which focused on the non-profit, inBloom. For those not familiar with inBloom, it’s a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-backed enterprise that aims to streamline and connect management of student data and the data itself via cloud services. According to their website:

inBloom is a non-profit organization created in response to a request from states and school districts to simplify how they record student information, administer tests, analyze performance, train teachers, and share lesson plans to support personalized learning. Personalized learning means that students’ learning experiences are tailored to their individual developmental needs, skill levels, and interests.

Parents in the Jefferson County, Colorado school district pushed back against the district’s plan to join with inBloom, mainly over questions about how student data would be used, how it would be protected, and concerns regarding privacy. In the age of Edward Snowden, how seriously can one take the promise of an organization when the NSA can’t even protect its data?

How much is student data worth? Social security numbers seem like high-ticket items, but is the real payoff in demographic data and user behavior? Combine services like inBloom’s with proponents who want a tablet in the hand of each child twenty-four hours a day and my cynicism takes over. Will an algorithm that monitors a child’s low reading ability tell another program to show the child more image-based ads on their tablet? It sounds like something from a Philip K. Dick novel. But when thinking about the kind of data that’s being recorded, it’s important that students and parents have a voice and that forethought is being used.

With that in mind, if you’re a parent, teacher, or student what are your thoughts on student data being connected and centralized on the cloud? Comment below and let us know.

5 Comments

Joe Montibello (@firstweet)

Interesting post. I went over to inBloom’s faq (helpfully located at https://www.inbloom.org/faq). It’s got some stuff that makes me pretty uncomfortable as a parent.

“inBloom does not and will not accept social security numbers (SSNs) as unique student identifiers.”

This is good to hear, actually.

“…inBloom has greatly improved student data protection beyond the measures currently used by most school systems.”

I believe this is true, but misleading. Their data protection is probably way better than your local elementary school can provide. However, your local school is comparatively small and localized (even if it’s a big school in a big city). The disjunction between systems helps the security environment because it means that a single breach can only expose a comparatively small and localized set of data. A system used nationally, even if it doesn’t build an actual database, builds a lovely framework for bad actors to take whatever exploits they come up with and monetize them by gathering Big Data on a sought-after demographic.

“Through such a dashboard, the teacher could quickly identify that her student is also struggling in English class, which might lead her to realize that his problem isn’t math, but reading comprehension. ”

Sounds great. So after we get the system set up and running, and train all the teachers on using it, we tell them that they need to use the new tool to do detective work on why the student is not doing well across several subjects? This is a helicopter parent’s dream, but the reality is that teachers are not going to be given extra time or pay to do this work, so in most cases it just isn’t going to happen.

The Gates foundation is pretty awesome in my opinion, and I suspect that they’ve probably thought through or even solved some of these problems in ways that are too detailed for an FAQ.

Thanks for bringing this to the fore!
Joe M

Reply
Chris

Since it has already become clear to me that the email address a high school student uses on standardized tests (PLAN, AP US History) sophomore year is made available to colleges, along with how well they did/what they did well on, I would be hesitant about anything else that aggregates student data.I am sure that they have their own assumptions based on the city we live in and the school system. This address has only ever been used for this purpose, so there is nothing else to mine there, but the targeting from a couple of specialized private institutions seems pretty spot-on and not just generic “send all the juniors in the state a postcard” like the public colleges of our state.

Reply
Chris

I remember when that came out — it was eye-opening. They are so right on the baby thing, though — I had never set foot in a Target until the final trimester of my pregnancy. And that child got a large glossy brochure in the mail from Reed College yesterday, probably because she followed the link in their email and looked around their site.

Reply

Leave a Reply