The emergence of big data and analytics in public education is bringing new urgency to the national debate over digital privacy.
Take AltSchool, an education startup that is adapting some of the passive-observation technologies already in use in such fields as consumer technology, professional sports, and retail sales. Those approaches include constantly running video cameras and audio recorders, and the use of motion-tracking and facial- and speech-recognition software.
The idea is that more and better information on students, collected unobtrusively as they go about regular learning activities in the classroom, might help make education more personalized, powerful, and efficient.
But where proponents see potential for innovation, others see big trouble.
It’s especially problematic that, said Joel Reidenberg, a school privacy expert and law professor at Fordham and Princeton universities.
“The extent to which a total surveillance environment affects a child’s learning, psyche, and personal growth is uncharted territory,” Reidenberg said. “We need development of ethical principles for the use of these data, as well as objective review mechanisms.”
That kind of independent, third-party review of ed-tech companies’ plans for experimenting with big data and analytics doesn’t appear likely anytime soon. The conversation is only just beginning, Reidenberg said, because big advances in data science are so new.
In the meantime, parents and citizens should be aware of possible harms, said, a privacy research fellow at New York University’s Information Law Institute. “There is the potential that ubiquitous surveillance might chill intellectual exploration,” she said.
Other worries involve the creation of profiles that could linger beyond their accuracy or utility; making key educational decisions based on algorithms that are too complex for the typical student, parent, or teacher to understand or challenge; and the possibility that pervasive monitoring in schools might normalize the kind of real-world surveillance that has landed the National Security Agency in hot water.
For their part, AltSchool officials stress that there’s a big gap between what they’re doing currently and what they may do in the future. Parents are opting into the AltSchool model, and scrutiny and debate are welcome, CEO Max Ventilla said.
“I agree that there is a psychic cost to monitoring that is quite high, and that needs to be overcome to justify the monitoring in the first place,” Ventilla said. “But if you don’t allow yourself to even get started, you preclude a lot of [potentially] good uses of these kinds of technologies.”
So far, though, legislators and policymakers have mostly struggled to keep up with the ambitions of the ed-tech sector.
One major example: the actions of online-services-giant Google, the former employer of both Ventilla and AltSchool co-founder and chief technology officer Bharat Mediratta.
Just last month, for example, the. It alleges, among other charges, that Google is violating the voluntary Student Privacy Pledge by tracking the millions of students who use its Apps for Education tool suite when they venture to other Google applications such as Maps and YouTube, then using the information to create behavioral profiles.
That capability is very connected to what Ventilla worked on when he was the company’s head of personalization just a few year ago.
But it would be a mistake to assume that AltSchool will push privacy boundaries in the same manner as Google, despite the histories of some key employees, said Mediratta, who was a top engineer in charge of the larger company’s homepage for more than a decade.
“Google [has] business reasons that cause it to cozy up to that line in ways that are going to upset some people,” Mediratta said. “But for us to be successful, we have to make sure that people trust us with the data we gather on their children and help them understand that it will pay off in a much higher-quality education for their child.”
Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Big Data or Big Brother?