Data Mining in Education — Incredible Potential, Incredible Arrogance

When inBloom fell apart, I expected that the argument would continuePolitico reported yesterday on the scope of data mining in education — and the stunning arrogance of some technology entrepreneurs.  According to the report, some analysts expect that data mining in education could lead to 300 billion a year in economic growth, and I find that credible.  I already use “small data” in my classroom via social media feeds that let me know what my students are thinking about as they read and to craft my planning around that input.  The potential of “big data” to craft learning tools for use by teachers and students is likely incredible.

And it will be thoroughly undermined by the secrecy and arrogance of its proponents.

Jose Ferreira, the CEO of Knewton, a leading “adaptive education” firm, is portrayed as frustrated and dismissive:

When parents protest that they don’t want their children data-mined, Ferreira wishes he could ask them why: Is it simply that they don’t want a for-profit company to map their kids’ minds? If not, why not? “They’d rather the NSA have it?” he asked. “What, you trust the government?”

Ferreira said he often hears parents angrily declaring that their children cannot be reduced to data points. “That’s not an argument,” Ferreira said. “I’m not calling your child a bundle of data. I’m just helping her learn.”

He goes on to say:

“It just helps children,” Ferreira said. “That’s all it does.”

But Ferreira misses the point by acting as if all he is facing is knee-jerk and reactionary parents misconstruing his work.  Data analytics may be powerful, but the firms involved in it have not be upfront or informative to either school districts or parents and guardians of school aged children.  While it is true that businesses have always made money via our public schools,  I can walk into my daughter’s first grade classroom and I see the publishers of her textbooks and other classroom materials.  The money spent is part of a public budget. I can engage in her curriculum, and I can consult with her teachers about her strengths and struggles.  Even more to the point, I get to know the teachers who know her school work the best and my voice and perspectives are heard.

But when the federal government alters education privacy law to suit the interests of data mining and when the firms themselves are unclear even to school districts how data is safeguarded and used, parents have legitimate concerns that cannot be dismissed.  With the rush to implement Common Core and the accompanying testing poised to create vast amounts of data from 10s of millions of students, it is even more important for technology entrepreneurs to spend time actually engaging parents and teachers about the potential of these tools and the safeguards on student privacy they intend to use.  If they are unwilling to do that, and Mr. Ferreira’s statements are not encouraging on that front, then the pushback is both inevitable and deserved.

They are not selling iPhones to adult consumers.  If I purchase a smart phone that has the potential to generate data about myself, I am capable of wrestling with the implications of that both legally and morally.  My two public school children, however, are legally obligated to be in school, and their public education is matter of concern for both our family and society as a whole. inBloom’s major error was only engaging state level DOEs when setting up a system that would have effected 10s of millions of children.  It looks like the big data firms that are eager to get in on the 8 billion dollar market in software and digital materials are not learning from that.

These are my children.  They are my responsibility. You need to sell these products to me.  You need to give me an opportunity to opt my children out of your system.

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