Mar 21 2013

Big Data Makes Its Mark on Schools — For Better or Worse

Nationwide student database provides new possibilities for learning providers, raises concern among parents.

Education advocates for years have marveled at the potential of Big Data. Schools collect so much information on students and their educations. The challenge has always been how to pool that data in a meaningful way to improve learning.

Now a new nonprofit organization with ties to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and News Corp.–backed education services provider Amplify says it has created a massive online database of student information that educational content developers can access when building new products for use in K–12 schools.

The database, which went live a few months ago, gives for-profit educational content providers access to the kind of personalized student data — names, addresses, grades, learning habits, test scores, etc. — that should, in theory, enable them to better customize their products to the needs of students. However, critics, including some parents, say the prospect of such a large, essentially shareable, online cache of sensitive personal information has serious privacy implications for schools.  More on the dust up follows.

The Database

The Gates Foundation provided much of the funding for the $100 million project, which was developed by Amplify and later spun off into a separate nonprofit organization called inBloom Inc., which we first read about in a story by Stephanie Simon for Reuters news service.

Simon reports that the database already contains information on millions of students. She also points out that federal law enables participating schools, which maintain ownership of the data, to share that information with educational content providers through which they have contracted, without first obtaining parental consent.

Several states have already reportedly agreed to enter data from select school districts, with New York and Louisiana leading the way, writes Simon.

Creators of educational content for schools say they are excited about the possibilities.

"This is going to be a huge win for us," Jeffrey Olen, product manager at education software provider CompassLearning, told Simon during the education portion of the massive SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.

The Controversy

Not everybody shares Olen’s enthusiasm. While designers of educational products could profit from access to more specific student data, some say obvious security risks and the potential for misuse among companies far outweigh the potential benefits for students and schools. 

In a blog post about the debate, educator Mark Garrison calls the database “irrational” and encourages parents to write letters in protest.

He’s not alone. Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit that advocates for class-size reductions in New York City schools, told CBS News New York that “thousands of parents have emailed the State Education Department and DOE in recent weeks, protesting this plan, and hundreds have sent letters to the state and city demanding that their children’s private data not be shared with inBloom Inc., or any other corporation or third-party vendor.”

Jason France, a father of two in Louisiana, is among the doubters. "Once this information gets out there, it's going to be abused,” he told Simon. “There's no doubt in my mind.” 

What’s your take? Will students benefit from a database that allows educational service providers to access private student information to potentially develop more customized content for use in schools, or do the risks of sharing that information far outweigh the potential benefits? Tell us in the Comments.

Anatoliy Babiy/Thinkstock

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