Data Collectors and Vendors: Don't Ask Us To Trust You. Show Us That You Care

5 min read

If you are collecting data on students, students need to be able to see, interact with, review, comment on, and dispute data points to which they have objections. Parents deserve these rights as well. Anything short of full, complete transparency - where students and parents can see the full range of data collected, and interact with it, and learn from it, and interject when the implications suggested by the data are wrong - won't be sufficient.

Whether you see this as a systems design issue with pedagogical implications, or a pedagogical issue with systems design implications, the starting points look the same.

If you are building or working with a data system, it needs to have these two components:

  • Student dashboard - a student should be able to see everything that is collected about them. More importantly, the application should have a mechanism that allows students to comment on, review - and in some cases, remove - data points, or assumptions based on data. More on this later.
  • Parent dashboard - because many students are minors, parents have the legal right to review data collected. Additionally, rights to review some data is guaranteed under FERPA. Really, there shouldn't need to be much - if any - difference between the student and parent dashboard. If there are significant differences between a parent and student view, those differences should be grounded in clearly articulated reasons that are of direct benefit to the learner.

If you are buying a data system for use within education, ask to see these components before you sign a contract. Don't accept answers like, "It's on the roadmap," or "We'll work with our design team to get this in place." It's 2014. This isn't rocket science.

Current data collection efforts treat students as observed objects, not as empowered agents. Additionally, the thrust of much of the data conversation centers around making learning more efficient - and this goal has some merits. But, if we shifted the definition to include and support making all participants in learning - students, teachers, parents, school administrators, policymakers - more informed and empowered, we are on the path of more comprehensive improvements. Efficiency is a short term goal, where education is a lifelong endeavor.

Current data collection efforts - and teaching strategies based on sound data use - don't take into account that we are self-aware. Student insights into how they learn - and, more importantly, creating within students the habit and skills to reflect critically on how they learn - should be designed into systems from the ground up. If our data collection efforts remain focused on building systems to put in front of students, and to report on how students interact with these systems, our thoughts around data, learning, and adaptive systems will remain rooted in the mindset of a student as an object to which learning happens. By shutting student voice out of the system - and no, "student voice" is not the same as taking a survey, or responding to prompts - we send the clear message that student input on their learning is, at best, secondary to the process of learning.

So, data collectors and vendors: don't ask us to trust you. When you collect information without telling us what it is, or why, it's not reassuring. It's creepy. I don't want to hear how your observations and analytics will revolutionize learning. I don't want tech companies, vendors, or really, anybody, laboring under the misconception that they have what it takes to "save" or "disrupt" education. While the intentions might be good, it's patronizing as hell.

Discussions around privacy look very different when we can all see exactly what is being collected and shared. If you are a vendor selling a data-driven service and you think that what you offer is amazing, then have the confidence to let us in so we can see exactly what you collect, and how you use our information. If you want us to agree to data collection, you need to agree to allow us to disagree. If someone doesn't see the benefit in what you offer, you need to have the confidence in the value of what you offer to respect their opinion. In short, my learning - or my kids learning, or the learning of anyone I have ever taught - is for the benefit of the learner first. If you think you can help people learn more with a data driven product, great, but you also need to respect the reality that not everyone will want your help.

If you want us to trust you and your intentions, the onus is on you to design systems in a way that allows for and respects individual choice.

These discussions take place against a backdrop where big data - more information about more things - is becoming increasingly "normal." Outside education, data brokers operate in a largely unregulated gray area. Inside education, vendors with millions of data points are not doing adequate planning to safeguard data. The price of public education should not be privacy. If vendors want to reassure us of their intentions, then please, work with us to make sure sure that learner privacy is respected, and that the learner voice trumps other concerns.

Don't ask us to trust you. Show us that you care.

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