Once upon a time, your child’s school performance was tidily summarized in two, maybe three, report cards per year. The cards rested safely in his or her student file, shared only with parents, teachers, and college administrators. Today’s digital technology has completely revamped that practice, and once-private academic information is now shared with countless individuals whom you’ll probably never meet.
Is this an acceptable practice? According to Jose Ferreira, CEO of a six-year-old data-mining company called Knewton, it’s perfectly acceptable, and it’s also in your child’s best educational interest. However, many critics nonetheless feel data-mining poses a widespread threat to students’ privacy.
Knewton: Mining Your Child’s Academic Data
You may wonder how a stranger such as Jose Ferreira could so easily gain access to your child’s personal academic data.
The answer lies in the vast number of electronics used by school districts today. Many school districts have well-stocked computer labs where students enter their personal IDs to gain access to games, apps, the Internet, and so forth.
Some schools loan out iPads or other electronic devices that encourage kids to explore and learn on their own at home. Still other districts provide students with magnetic strip cards, which they swipe at the library, on the bus, and in the lunch line.
Most likely, your child is creating a personalized digital trail simply by attending school every day. And, just as likely, that trail has fallen under the scrutiny of a powerful data-mining company such as Knewton.
Knewton has partnered with some major educational publishers, including Microsoft, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin, to put adaptive learning technology into the hands of millions of American students. In the words of the company itself, Knewton has made its fortune aggregating “data science, statistics, psychometrics, machine learning, tagging, and unified learning histories” in one place to create personalized digital lessons for students on a “massive scale.”
In other words, Knewton’s software quietly lurks inside the digital gadgets that your child uses at school.
It gathers data about your child’s academic performance by analyzing keystrokes, wrong answers, right answers, time on task, and a host of other input data. The information is stored in the cloud where your child’s teachers can access it.
Who else can access it? Knewton, of course.
A Matter of Student Achievement?
Ferreira is neither ashamed nor apologetic for the massive amounts of data that he’s collected about America’s children.
“We literally know everything about what you know,” he boasts. “We have five orders more magnitude about you than Google has.” But Ferreira says he doesn’t do it for the power trip.
Student data is used by Knewton’s adaptive software to fine-tune digital lessons that will boost student achievement. It’s like having a one-on-one tutor built into your child’s tablet or computer, a tutor who can differentiate instruction through ongoing, formative assessments.
Differentiated instruction delivery is a skill that classroom teachers spend years trying to perfect. Countless professional development hours are poured into the study of differentiated instruction, and ultimately, teachers are evaluated on their ability to deliver it.
It’s a difficult task for one human being to undertake when faced with 25-35 students, all of whom have different learning styles and levels of ability. Ferreira’s solution: Give the task of differentiated instruction to a computer program, and see what happens.
The goal is to lighten the load of teachers while simultaneously improving the experience of learners. Admittedly, the concept is appealing. After all, the U.S. has lost its footing in global academic ratings over the past decades. In 2012, American students ranked 27th in math, 17th in reading, and 20th in science on a global scale, according to data from the Programme for International Student Assessment. For the country to keep its identity as a superpower, most people agree that an overhaul of the educational system is long overdue.
The Ethical Concerns Surrounding Knewton
Electronic information systems such as Knewton’s bring to the table a host of oft-unanticipated ethical concerns. In the case of Jose Ferreira’s brainchild, one of the public’s major worries is student privacy. The U.S. government restricts the use of encryption codes, meaning that student data could easily fall into the wrong hands and be misused, abused, or even spread internationally.
Even if the data were fully protected by encryption, it could still be sold to marketers and advertisers hoping to make a profit from children who are struggling to learn. America is no stranger to security breaches, and no one wants to see a child fall prey to the evils of greedy hackers.
In the eyes of many Americans, the privacy trade-off is not worth the academic advantages leveraged by Knewton’s adaptive learning software.
What Other Ed-Tech Companies Are Doing
Khan Academy, another notable online learning platform, recently changed its information-gathering policy to appease users who were nervous about privacy concerns. The non-profit organization, which once admitted to a “targeted advertising” policy, now claims to advocate the protection of student privacy. Khan Academy does, however, still allow information-gathering cookies to be placed by outside parties such as YouTube and Google.
When technology advances faster than ethics, questions inevitably will arise. It’s true that big data yields big benefits. Knewton and Google are a few big data-gathering companies that we know, but there are many more that we might not know. It’s equally true that we don’t want our privacy exploited for purposes other than our own. The question that we need to ask is: How do we parse the good from the bad when it comes to student data-mining — or any data-mining, for that matter?