The National Student Privacy Symposium


In 8 hours of intense debate about student data privacy, we heard panelists use the words sexy, naked, sex ed class and constipation. This coming from researchers, education policy leaders, privacy advocates, IT experts, teachers and parents, all in one room. And besides making us aware that anyone working in privacy has a pretty good sense of humor, it brought into focus that privacy is an everyday event.

There are a few points I want to highlight from the day. One of the things that struck me the most was that we need to discuss privacy concerns from two different sides – students and parents. Because privacy to a student is not the same as keeping one’s own children’s data private. We can’t forget that the purpose of student data is for students to learn better and not for our research teams to have more data to study learning. And well, if we can improve our research while at it, then so be it. There was also discussion of the implications of opting out of more data sharing. I would argue that the more data we can share, in more useful ways, is a step in the right direction. It can foster trust between students and the adults in the student’s life. Lets make parents partners not only in education but in privacy matters.

The Future of Privacy Forum released the results of the parent survey and it wasn’t surprising to me that parents are in favor of data collection as long as it is not used for commercial purposes. One statistic that jumped out at me was the fact that most parents want to opt out of data collection for racial and socioeconomic concerns. I’d argue that in a world where we see racial profiling happening every day, and increasingly in schools, the concerns about the collection of biased data are real. But I feel we need to start asking the question to parents and students on what they feel a student profile should contain, what it should be, and who should get access to it. Further, when looking at these results, we need to be aware that if only certain demographics opt out of sharing information they would significantly alter the results of big data sets and inadvertently divert much needed funds away from high need districts and schools. We also need to constantly remind ourselves that not all parents have access to the technology we discussed at the symposium, and as Rafranz Davis pointed out “anyone who things BYOD is equitable doesn’t know what school in many places is like.” All kids should have access to their own devices to learn, and it’s easier said than done. How do we help districts with limited resources achieve this?

One of the things I struggle with when discussing the results of the survey is that even though collecting data is valuable and using the information to improve teaching practices is the purpose, I find the all or nothing approach of my children’s school district regarding FERPA opting out problematic. For example, what if I want my kids information on the school directory so that we can meet other families and communicate about activities, homework etc. but I don’t want my child’s information released to a third party that will use it to try to sell me something? I can either opt in all the way or opt out completely. So we need to discuss these issues and come to a happy medium where parents have control over the information schools share about their child.

I think we can all agree that the consensus is that we need to discuss what types of data we really need? Are we collecting the right data that will help disadvantaged students and help create a more equitable educational environment? Are we finally recognizing that student data belongs to students? Kathleen Styles made an excellent point and reminded us that teachers need to be trained not only in protecting student data but in learning how to use it effectively.

We can’t place the burden on students to understand policy and law but at the same time, privacy and security need to happen every day in schools. At the end of the day, we need to get this right. I certainly walked away with many lessons learned and points to think about and debate in the future. Student privacy is complicated, that’s for sure, but everyone in that room is trying to work it out so we can do good by the kids. We can’t afford to not do right by kids, and if that means talking FERPish (as Kathleen Styles said) then we should be knowledgeable about it…..

And if you want to read a play by play of the day’s conversations check out the #NSPS2015 hashtag on Twitter. It was fun!





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