How Student Data Is Being Mined and Why You Should Care

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Have you ever noticed after you make a random search on the Internet, that suddenly ads referencing the same topic, or a similar one, appear in your newsfeed on social media? Or maybe after using the Internet, you start to notice banner ads on the websites you visit that reflect your searches or your recent purchases.

These targeted ads are just one example of data mining—a process that examines large data sets to find patterns and correlations. Many times, these patterns are then used to advertise products, increase revenue, and understand consumer behavior.

While collecting and using this data is beneficial to a number of different organizations including tech companies and even the government, it also can be an invasion of privacy, especially if the data being collected is on students. Yet, as more and more schools go one-to-one with technology in the classroom, that is exactly what is happening and it has parents and advocates concerned.

A Closer Look at Data Mining

Big data is a huge part of doing business today. In fact, companies are snatching up "data scientists" as quickly as they can in order to keep pace with others in the business marketplace. And student data has become especially of interest. Nearly everything a student does online leaves a data signature that someone somewhere could be capturing and storing.

Because there is so much data out there and it is often too vast for individuals to make sense of, data mining has become a way to automate the process. As a result, data scientists use algorithms to detect patterns in the data. Once the data has been summarized using algorithms, then data scientists are able to infer things based on what they have observed. 

A simple example involves a market research expert at Walmart that discovered when dads come to buy diapers they also tend to pick up beer. As a result, the market researcher suggested putting diapers and beer closer together in the store in order to increase sales. Data mining allows researchers like this researcher at Walmart to detect patterns and make changes in order to capitalize on those patterns.

But, when it comes to mining student data, parents are discovering that it is next to impossible to find out which companies are collecting data on their students. Plus, they have no idea how this information is being used. What's more, most industry experts indicate that there are huge holes in the protection of students' privacy. 

For instance, they point to incomplete or vague privacy policies within the school districts as well as vague terms-of-service agreements in district contracts with technology providers.

School districts could write privacy protections into their contracts with educational technology companies, but very few of them do. As a result, this is putting private student data at risk of being used in ways parents would never approve of.

How Companies Get This Info

Today, students are tracked as they play video games, watch movies, read books, take quizzes, complete assignments, and even run laps in physical education class. They are monitored even while they are at home. Companies can gather everything from how well they do on the homework assignments, what time of day they work on them, their locations when studying, their web browsing habits, and of course how well they are doing in school.

At the top of the list of these information collectors is Google. One of the primary ways in which they are mining data is through their free G Suite for Education. This collection of Google apps including Google Docs, Google Drive and more now has 70 million users worldwide. What's more, more than 20 million Chromebooks are in use in schools on a weekly basis. 

What's more, Google has admitted to data mining, or scanning millions of student emails that use G Suite for Education and even had a complaint filed against them in federal court. In fact, 23 parent and watchdog groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. They claim that Google is violating child-protection laws by collecting personal data and advertising to those under the age of 13. 

Additionally, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Google is collecting far more information on kids than is necessary and is often storing that information indefinitely. In addition to personally identifying information (PII) like name and date of birth, the information can include browsing history, search terms, location data, contact lists, and behavioral information. 

“In short, technology providers like Google are spying on students, and school districts, which often provide inadequate privacy policies or no privacy policy at all, are unwittingly helping them do it,” writes the researchers at EFF in a report, Spying on Students: School-Issued Devices and Student Privacy.

Another big player in gathering student data is Knewton, an adaptive learning company that has a platform to personalize educational content. They have collected data from millions of students across the country by monitoring everything a student does online. Every click and keystroke a student makes is recorded, as well as every hesitation as they work through digital textbooks. As a result, they are able to determine not only what students know but also how they think. 

For instance, Knewton can tell everything from who is struggling with fractions to who is having trouble concentrating. The goal, they say, is to identify potential problems early and to help kids fair better in school. Facebook's Digital Promise partnership for the U.S. Department of Education is another way student data is being mined. Even Khan Academy was collecting data on its uses. But, they recently changed their policy and are taking steps to protect student data like not sending advertising. They do still allow YouTube or Google analytics to place cookies on the students' computers. As a result, those third parties can collect and store information about how the students use the web.

What Parents Should Know About Screen Time and Social Media

What Info Is Being Collected?

Most organizations and companies that are collecting data on students are monitoring everything they do. For instance, they might monitor everything a child does as they work through educational software or a digital textbook. They also could collect data on the video games they play and the tutorials they watch. With this information, they could track everything about a student. They discover what he knows, how he thinks, and how he learns.

In other words, data mining could allow companies and educators to discover if a child perseveres when he is faced with a challenging problem. Or, they might learn whether or not he zones out after reading just a few paragraphs of a text.

By tracking and gathering all of this information, companies are building information-rich profiles on students, their individual learning styles and their academic success.

The problem arises when this information is used for purposes other than improving education. There are no regulations in place right now keeping them from selling the information to data brokers or companies that want to use it to customize and target advertising.

The companies that are best at mining data from students can collect as many as 10 million unique data points on each student, each day. That's more information than Netflix or Facebook can collect on their users. What's more, this data has a lot of value. Not only could it be used for targeting ads to the students and their families, but it also could be used to build profiles that later could be used by college admission officers, military recruiters, and even employers looking for a specific skill set.

What Do the Laws Say?

Even though the U.S. Department of Education has stressed that they believe that safeguarding student privacy is a priority, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), enacted in 1974, gives school districts the right to share students' personal information with private companies in order to further educational goals. And while companies are supposed to keep standardized test scores, disciplinary actions, student grades, and other private information confidential, there is no guarantee that they are.

Both Republicans and Democrats have been on board with data mining. In fact, the Obama Administration even relaxed federal privacy law to allow school districts to share student data more widely. And, the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act allows government collection of personally identifiable information. This means in addition to addresses and other personal information, they also can collect data on attitudes, values, and beliefs.

Meanwhile, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which is administered by the Federal Trade Commission, protects children under the age of 13 who use commercial websites, online games, and mobile applications. Under COPPA, these commercial products and sites are required to get parental consent before collecting data. They are also required to allow parents to see what is being collected and then delete the information after it has served its purpose.

The problem is that these regulations do not apply to products used for "educational" purposes within school districts. As a result, it is up to the school district to ensure that a student's data is protected.

If a vendor wants to use data for other purposes, parental consent is needed. Although COPPA may not always apply in educational settings, school districts may find it helpful to remind vendors of COPPA requirements. By doing so, they are able to communicate the vendor’s responsibilities in protecting student privacy.

What's in a Child's Cumulative Educational File?

Potential Ramifications

When it comes to data mining, most parents are worried about how the information is being used. Additionally, because there are relatively no regulations on how the information can be used, parents are understandably concerned that companies and other organizations could use this knowledge to exploit their children.

As schools increasingly use outside software to teach, interact with students, and even to diagnose potential learning disabilities, the companies they are working with are allowed to collect, store, and even sell your kids records. This means your student's online learning and standardized tests could go to college recruiters, athletic recruiters, or even advertisers of educational products.

Ever wonder why you suddenly are receiving information for supplemental tutoring programs? Perhaps it has something to do with your child's reading and math assessments. Or, what if Harvard and Stanford stop reaching out to your top student? Maybe there is something in her student record that makes them think she does not meet their standards. Having no control over how your student's information is shared and distributed could end up being a real disservice to your student.

Another way students could be impacted is through the fact that FERPA allows schools to share certain information without getting a parent's consent. That means that individualized education plans (IEPs), attendance records, and disciplinary records could be disclosed if they are used for educational purposes or to improve school performance. But, the downside is that this information could also keep your student from getting into better classes or special schools within the district if they are used to screen your child or to build a profile on him.

A Word From Verywell

If your child's school district is using Google's G Suite for Education, offers one-to-one technology, or frequently uses technology products in the classroom or at home, it might be worth your time to ask for the the school's student privacy policy as it relates to technology. It is important for parents to be aware of the types of information the school and its partners are collecting on your student, as well as what steps the school is taking to protect your student's private information.

Likewise, you also may want to instruct your students not to use their school devices for personal use. In other words, do not access social media, play games, watch YouTube, access Netflix, or other things from their school device. Even though many of these entities are already collecting their own data, at least it is in a separate data pool from what the district and its technology partners are collecting. The more data one entity can collect on a person, the more information-rich their profile becomes. While this can be used for good, it also can be exploited.

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