Graphic of security written on a chalkboard and college students standing in front of it

The Student Privacy Bill of Rights

2 Jul 2015 by Robyn Itule

The Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015 does a noble job of escalating a conversation about the rights of minors and the data that schools, school vendors and other learning tools collect on them. From day one of their education, today’s students are producing volumes of data. The question is: What are the student’s rights to this information and its uses over the course of their primary and secondary education?

Information stokes innovation, but …

Vendors in the education space argue vehemently that the analytics they’re able to extract from student information help them make better products and solutions. There’s no doubt the constant flow of feedback provides opportunities for continuous refinement and improvement. However, many argue the environment in which this is currently conducted has no boundaries or limits for data use or retention.

“The root issue is ownership,” says Tessa Jolls, president of the Center for Media Literacy. “Our data is us. It’s a major asset.”

Vendors of every type have acknowledged the tremendous value of student data — some for curriculum and learning enhancement, others for advertising purposes. It’s the latter that concerns parents, educators, legislators and even some education companies that fear the practice will sully the reputation of service providers across the industry. The digital DNA of an entire generation is a veritable gold mine of ones and zeros, but the outcomes of having captured that information and putting it to use are not clear.

Data lacks context.

If you’ve ever done a Google search on yourself and been surprised at the results, you may have found that the initial reaction to the content is to try and offer context.

“I was in college when that photo was taken!”

“That quote is from my high school newspaper!”

“I have no idea how I got to be a social meme!”

“Wait, my Instagram photo was just sold by an artist for $90,000?”

It’s not just the unforeseen consequences of user-generated content posted online; official records don’t always show a complete picture either.

With the volumes of data being collected on students, it’s easy to imagine a very vivid picture of students based solely on their performance and educational activities.

The Department of Education’s Race to the Top is just one example. The longitudinal study is designed to gain an appreciable understanding of where American students thrive or lag. But there’s a whole universe of underlying issues and opportunities that sit below educational performance.

What mood were the students in that day? Are they are good test takers? Was it close to lunch time? Did they get a good night’s sleep? Did they get glasses in the 90 days following the test? The list could go on and on. And without that pertinent information, can schools, educational vendors and the Department of Education really make informed assertions, changes and decisions?

Imagine the kinds of assumptions student might face if their records showcase strength or weakness in a subject but lack the substance of their personal lives. At worst, an unregulated environment, which lacks context, could produce a digital caste system in which students have little opportunity to address or change what’s presented about them.

Who, what, where, when, why and how?

While districts, educators, parents, students, vendors and policymakers each have their own perspectives on what constitutes a reasonable solution to the student privacy issue, they can all agree the time has come to establish rules that all stakeholders are comfortable with.

Some questions to start with:

  • Who owns the data? (Companies, schools, parents, students)
  • What data are subject to these rules? (Is a minor’s activity on a learning website the student’s? Or is it the company’s?)
  • Where can that data live? (Here’s looking at you, service providers and cloud solutions.)
  • When can that data be used? (For research? For product improvement? For personalized education? After graduation?)
  • Why is the data collection necessary? (For research? For product improvement? For personalized education?)
  • How can families and students access/control/rescind their data? (What recourse and redress do families have? How can they know where everything is? How do they control permissions to grant or revoke access?)

Establishing fair policy that enables innovation to thrive, protects the rights of students and families, and creates realistic, workable scenarios for schools leaves far more questions than answers. But the conversation is happening, and it must continue as technology evolves in order to protect students who are growing into digital citizens.