Privacy & Security Q&A

AI Is Making Data Literacy a ‘Survival Skill’ That Schools Must Teach, Experts Argue

By Lauraine Langreo — November 16, 2023 4 min read
Illustration of individual carrying binary data on his back to put back into the organized background of 1s and 0s.
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It’s almost impossible to go anywhere or do anything in today’s digital world without giving out some of our personal data or risking its security.

In fact, an overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (86 percent) are concerned about the privacy and security of their personal information and data, according to a new whitepaper from Publishers Clearing House Consumer Insights.

And the rise of generative artificial intelligence—technology that’s reliant on the data it’s trained on—might put our personal data at even greater risk, the authors of the whitepaper argue.

The whitepaper also found that more than two-thirds of U.S. adults surveyed said they don’t understand how their data are being used, which the authors argue is a result of data literacy not being taught in schools. They also argue for better federal regulation on businesses’ data collection and for companies to be more transparent about how they use consumers’ data.

The report is based on the results of a nationally representative survey of 45,231 U.S. adults age 25 and older conducted by Publishers Clearing House Consumer Insights between April and June. The data analysis was conducted by Tiffany Johnson, an adjunct professor of consumer behavior at New York University; Daniela Molta, an assistant professor of digital advertising at Syracuse University; and Evan Shapiro, an adjunct professor at New York University’s and Fordham University’s schools of business.

In an interview with Education Week, Molta and Shapiro discussed why data literacy education should start as early as kindergarten.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What was the most surprising data point in the survey?

Daniela Molta

Molta: The vast majority of Americans are concerned about personal data. People generally feel ill-equipped. A lot of people feel like they don’t have any idea what’s going on with their personal data. It’s alarming, because it’s understandable that people feel ill-equipped. It’s very difficult to understand how your data is being collected and used today. We don’t make it easy for people—businesses don’t. Government hasn’t done a ton to help out. That’s what really leads us to this data literacy idea, that we really need to revamp everything from the ground up in terms of how consent [about data collection] is shown, how young children are using devices in terms of when they first get a tablet and making sure that they understand some elements of data privacy with that and so on.

What should data literacy education look like at every grade level?

Evan Shapiro

Shapiro: We teach kids how to use computers as early as 1st grade, but we don’t necessarily teach them where their clicks are leading to. At every age, [we should] teach an age-appropriate lesson on the safety rules around the technology that they’re utilizing: This is how an iPhone works, and these are the things that you’re telling it, and this is what the device does with it on an ongoing basis. This is how much information you’re giving these [social media] platforms on a regular basis about you, and this is what they’re doing with it. But there are also jobs to be had in these areas, as well. This is how you might find a career in big data. This is how you might find a career in product design. This is how you might find a career in marketing and advertising on these platforms. It’s not all bad.

Molta: Maybe starting in kindergarten, [we can talk about] what is personal data? I think the concept of personal space is something that little children understand—you could even use that as an analogy, and then talk about “my address is personal data.” So just really starting really, really simple. Then as they advance, [we could talk about] why is it important to protect [your data]? What is that actual value exchange that’s happening when you’re visiting a website or an app? What are some tangible ways that you can protect your data?

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Teacher giving a lecture in a data classroom to a group of students

How can we help teachers do this when their plates are already so full?

Molta: Maybe there is a way to create an e-learning ecosystem for either the instructors for themselves to learn before they go out and teach students, or [for them] to share with students so that they’re kind of co-learning. Schools could also bring in subject-matter experts into the classroom. This is also where some legislation could be helpful on the education side.

Shapiro: I’m gonna double click on what [Daniela] said. Creating training modules for professional educators is probably the most important aspect of this. Whether it’s PTA-funded or school board-funded or state level-funded, [it’s important to] create funding to train teachers and students how to use technology to keep everyone safe. This should be apolitical. I can’t think of a more important topic. All [learning] takes technology these days.

What would you say to policymakers to convince them to prioritize data literacy?

Shapiro: These are life survival skills. It is a matter of survival, whether that’s having your privacy hacked, and your identity stolen, or posting something that ends your career prospects. If you think you’re providing a full education for the students in your district or in your state without teaching them these aspects of basic survival, then you’re fooling yourself.

Molta: As we look to the future, we’ve been in this big-data world, and we are seeing what’s going on with AI. This is just going to proliferate. We can expect the amount of personal data that’s being captured and used to just grow and grow and grow. If we do not start to tackle this now, and we’re another 20 years down the line, I just kind of fear for where we might be as a society if we’re continuing to be so ill-informed.


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