Data privacy: implications for digital learning, and beyond

Among the policy issues that we are researching for Keeping Pace 2014 is student data privacy. Twenty states have enacted a total of 28 bills related to data privacy this year, after all states combined enacted just one in 2013. (This and other summary information comes from the Data Quality Campaign, which has been tracking data privacy bills and generously sharing information.) Although the majority of these bills do not explicitly prohibit the use of student data for instructional purposes, several have provisions that are challenging for educators. We will discuss these restrictions, and implications of poorly considered data privacy policies on digital learning, in some detail in the Keeping Pace annual report that will be released at the iNACOL Symposium that begins November 4. We stress the “poorly considered” aspect of these laws, because there is no question that student data privacy is a legitimate issue. Student data must be protected, but it can be protected without creating undue burdens for educators. A recent article from Pew, States Collaborate to Keep Track of Students, reminds us that the expanded use of data is not an issue related only to digital learning. The article describes how states attempting to follow student outcomes, particularly of students once they graduate from high school or drop out, are often limited to researching students who remain in the state. Four states—WA, OR, HI, and ID—are using grant funding to collaborate to follow students who leave their home state and move to one of the other three states. In one example, in a data set of about 40,000 students, the states were initially able to understand outcomes for 62% of students, which increased to 69% when they included data from the other three states. That in itself isn’t a huge increase, but it suggests that if more than four states were sharing information then researchers would have a much better sense for student outcomes.

As education policy increasingly moves from a focus on inputs-based quality assurance to an equal (or greater) focus on student outcomes, the increased use of data become ever more important. Understanding student outcomes shouldn’t stop when a student leaves high school for at least two reasons. First, students who drop out of high school may eventually go back—perhaps in another state—or earn a GED. Second, as more and more jobs require some post-secondary education, understanding how many students are completing a post-high school degree is important to determine education policy goals.

Privacy advocates may counter that while those goals are laudable, they don’t override individuals’ interest in privacy. For the most part, however, that argument is a red herring. Data can be shared and used without revealing personally identifiable private information, and the best data privacy policies aim to strike this appropriate balance. Data usage is rapidly increasing in many other fields while addressing most privacy concerns. See, for example, the ways in which medical data are being used to determine drug problems and harmful interactions, or the ways that people are willingly sharing personal information with companies in order to get discounts or free services.

The use of data is increasing across most sectors, in ways that carry some risk but ultimately benefit providers and users. The same trend is occurring in education, and its growth will help educators and students.