EdTech Mindset – Privacy online scandals will not hold back Big Data rise in educational settings

EdTech Mindset – Privacy online scandals will not hold back Big Data rise in educational settings

EdTech Mindset – Privacy online scandals will not hold back Big Data rise in educational settings

The story of the short-lived inBloom, a non-profit student data warehouse and management company, has opened the door to a public debate about the buildup of cloud-hosted student-databases. A company that could have brought the promise of personalized learning, especially to overcrowded, underfunded schools, was closed on April 23, 2014. With important backing, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of NY (around 100 million US dollars), and a cloud database run by Amazon, inBloom’s pitch was about making student data accessible and seamless to teachers, districts and parents in order to significantly improve learning. Moreover, inBloom’s setup was geared to providing a model solution for safe and secure use and sharing of student data, replacing the current mishmash of products. However, at the beginning of 2013, a major protest arose against inBloom, turning into a legal suit, when inBloom declared its plans to share the data with vendors (with state and district consent).

inBloom revealed its new sustainability business model, from an initial generous funding to help the buildup of the company (primarily oriented towards public and universal interests), towards a more autonomous revenue-oriented business model (in need of paying customers), as explained by Michael Horn, a member of its Board of Directors. The reaction was immediate and escalated dramatically to the different layers of the educational world. “Parents, teachers, advocacy groups and privacy experts throughout the country have protested this unprecedented plan to share children’s sensitive information with private corporations … a breach of this highly sensitive information, or its inappropriate use, could put children’s safety at risk” (WNYC, July 2013).

The inBloom database included more than 400 different data fields about students, including family relationships (“foster parent” or “father’s significant other”), reasons for enrollment changes (“withdrawn due to illness” or “leaving school as a victim of a serious violent incident”) – to which parents objected, saying that they did not want that kind of information about their children transferred to a third-party vendor.

Is privacy dead?

This episode showcases the turmoil around online privacy concerns, and the use and trade of individual information without consent, that have lately proliferated in major media channels. “Privacy is dead” (Wired, 31.3.14); “Hackers found a file with Sony usernames and passwords” (TechCrunch, 16.12.14);  “Google goes to court over Gmail scanning” (The Telegraph, Sept. 2013); “Facebook sued for scanning ‘private’ messages for profit” (Wired, Jan. 2014); “LinkedIn is breaking into user emails, spamming contacts – lawsuit” (GigaOm, Sept. 2013); “We have sensors that track us everywhere we go. Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person” (Edward Snowden, 2013); “Did you know that your ‘likes’ in Facebook could expose intimate details about you as well as personality traits you might not want to share with anyone?”  No less dramatic were the headlines affecting the educational world such as the massive 2013 cyber-attack in California involving its universities, or the acknowledgment by Google that it does mine students’ emails for advertisement purposes in its Google Apps for Education.

Educational data – a sensitive issue

The media scare, together with the increase in investments and products (a massive flood of educational apps becoming a major learning resource) based on Big Data systems, raised a red alert to the entire educational community. Teachers and parents are worried about the use and misuse of students’ data. “Student Data is the New Oil”[i] is a statement gaining popularity among the educational media. Data offered by MindCET shows that teachers and students are especially concerned about the use by the educational system of students’ data even if it is to improve learning.

The undeniable opportunities Big Data brings to the development of relevant, accessible and efficient learning environments, makes the inBloom case an important debate for all education stakeholders. The building of data-sharing structures is necessary and, despite fears, it is on its way to becoming a significant service. An example is Carnegie Mellon’s “LearnSphere” project that has recently received almost 5 million US dollars and the backup of the main US universities.

(Read the full EdTech Mindset magazine here)