For Data Miners, Little Kids are Big Business

Saturday, May 17, 2014
(AP photo)

Educational technology companies have hit the mother lode of data mining. Each time a pupil takes an online test, or a teacher notes a grade or an absence, that bit of information can be picked up by one of the many entities providing software to schools. And data miners are striking it rich.


A 2013 report from McKinsey & Co. concluded that the U.S. economy could grow by another $300 billion if entities improve K-12 and college instruction and make education more efficient.


One data analytics firm, Knewton, is already tracking the moves, tendencies and preferences of more than four million students throughout the U.S.


“The amount of data being collected is staggering,” Politico’s Stephanie Simon wrote in her investigation of the practice. “Ed tech companies of all sizes, from basement startups to global conglomerates, have jumped into the game. The most adept are scooping up as many as 10 million unique data points on each child, each day. That’s orders of magnitude more data than Netflix or Facebook or even Google collect on their users.”

Just about anything a kid does can be tracked and recorded, from playing online games to running during a PE class to reasons for absences.


As for federal laws governing data on kids and their privacy rights, the U.S. government is relying on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act … of 1974. The law allows school districts to share students’ personal information with private companies, as long as it is for educational purposes. But some companies have demonstrated that their “educational” programs targeting students have other underlying motives.


Take Google, which is being sued over its Apps for Education tool suite provided to schools. The lawsuit alleges that the Internet giant scanned millions of email messages from students using the app to accumulate data for targeted advertising.


“This should draw the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Trade Commission, and state legislatures,” Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Education Week. “Student privacy is under attack.”


Some districts are fighting back. The Houston Independent School District recently decided not to adopt the Apps for Education program. “The landscape of what districts are facing is changing at light speed,” HISD Chief Technology Officer Lenny Schad told Education Week. “We have to come together as educational entities and say to vendors that certain privacy protections are non-negotiable, and we won’t do business with you until they are in place.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Data Mining Your Children (by Stephanie Simon, Politico)

Google Under Fire for Data-Mining Student Email Messages (by Benjamin Herold, Education Week)

Hundreds of Apps for Children Collect Their Private Information without Alerting Parents (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


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