Protecting Students From Big Data

18 Jul

Teaching is a form of time travel. Teachers prepare students today but work in the future, giving students what they’ll need years or decades from now. This is an increasingly difficult job, as the rate of change in society makes that future increasingly uncertain.

An emerging issue that will affect students in the future is the role of Big Data. Digital tools are ubiquitous today, as is the use of services we access with those tools. Phones, tablets and laptops would be much less useful without the use of digital services. Searching on Google, researching on Wikipedia, shopping on Amazon or connecting through social media is the interrelated nature of digital devices and applications.

What users sometimes forget is that digital services make money by selling the data they collect about users. Each time a user does something on an application an “event‘ is created. Every website searched for, every person ‘liked’, every retweet, every product purchased is an event and over time they provide a detailed profile of the user’s behaviour, their interests, likes and dislikes. This profile is incredibly valuable as it can be used to predict future behaviour. This is the data that drives Amazon’s recommendations or Facebook’s suggestions of “friends”.

While we don’t know what the future uses of this data will be, we have some examples that are illustrative:

  • In the U.S., the National Security Administration uses Big Data to decide who to place on their anti-terrorist “No-Fly lists”. This has led to many people being incorrectly placed on the list including Sen. Edward Kennedy, a U.S. marine and a nun.
  • Some credit card user had their credit limits lowered not because of their own credit history, but because they shopped at stores that people with poor credit ratings also shopped at.
  • People whose purchase records include plus-sized clothing may be flagged for obesity by health care providers.
  • Netflix uses big data to create shows that it already knows viewers will love by “mining” data on what subscribers watch, when they stop watching, what they fast forward through and what they rewind and watch again.

However Big Data is used in the future, it’s likely it will be used extensively by corporations and government to predict what people will do and make decisions based on those predictions. Educators need to consider what their role is in preparing students for that future.

Some issues to consider and discuss:

  1. Using Digital Tools: Educators have embraced the use of free digital tools in the classroom. Google Apps for Education, Edmodo, KidBlog and many others are popular popular free services. Educators make extensive use of social media to connect with students. All of these services and tools require students to create accounts which allow data to be collected on a student’s behaviour. A student could graduate from high school with fourteen years of ‘events’ (clicks, search results, e-mails, etc.) created through their learning. The implications are significant. Is it ethical for educators to facilitate the collection of data about students by corporations?
  2. “In House” Digital Tools: Some schools or school boards prefer to use “in house” digital tools to retain control of student data. The same questions apply to student data no matter who collects it. Does it belong to the student or the institution? Is the institution free to use student data as it sees fit? Could student data be used to support future programming decisions for students? Could placement of students into streams, programs or access to support be determined in advance by a student’s data profile?
  3. Financial Pressure: My school uses a useful digital tool, created by a large corporation, for which we pay a licensing fee. As part of the licensing fee the corporation retains rights to student data and stores it for us. If we wish to retain our student data we must pay an additional fee and set up our own data server. Given the cost and inconvenience, our student data is kept by the corporation. In an environment of shrinking budgets and financial pressure on schools, large digital corporations have the upper hand. They are offering ‘free’ or low-cost services in return for data and schools and educators are not well positioned to refuse. What are the alternatives to using commercial digital tools in the classroom? Could a cash strapped school or school board use student data as a source of revenue? What is a school’s responsibilities with respect to the personal data of people who are no longer students?

These are difficult questions for educators and there are not many easy answers. Further discussion leading to policy is needed.

Some related blogs:

How do we teach terms of service? by Royan Lee

Royan’s Delema by Tim King

Building a student data infrastructure by Audrey Watters

5 Responses to “Protecting Students From Big Data”

  1. VanessaVaile July 18, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Reblogged this on MOOC Madness and commented:
    Sometimes Massiveness is not the only or even the more worrisome concern,

  2. Lisa noble July 18, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    So great to have you and Royan both blogging about this today. Lots of big questions, and ones we need to wrestle with. Our board is switching over to office 365 in the fall, and kids will all have a e-mail account, and access to web-based versions of the Office Suite. Will need to talk to them about where that info is going.

    Nora Young did a great show on big data in May. Podcast is here: http://www.cbc.ca/spark/episodes/2013/05/23/218/

  3. John T. Spencer (@johntspencer) July 23, 2013 at 9:33 am #

    I use social media with kids, but I wrestle with the questions of Big Data and how it’s being used. You captured a lot of what’s been going on in my head that I just haven’t been able to articulate.

    • ballacheybears July 23, 2013 at 9:38 am #

      It’s a difficult position to be in. We want to use the best, most effective tools & methods but policy isn’t keeping pace to protect students. Are teachers then responsible? Who? A lot of questions.

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