What ed tech can learn from health care when it comes to data access

teacher classroom

To hear it from entrepreneurs and technologists in education, new efforts to combine historically siloed sets of student data will pave the way for a new era of personalized and dynamic learning. But to some parents and civil liberties advocates, it’s a privacy nightmare waiting to happen.

According to a recent Reuters article, parents in several states are up in arms about inBloom, a $100 million project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and others to create a massive database of student data. In fact, it said that parents in New York and Louisiana, as well as the Massachusetts chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Parent-Teacher Association, had written to state officials in protest, citing privacy and security fears.

But while privacy and security concerns are certainly warranted (information about children is obviously not to be handled lightly), supporters of the project say they believe that by shifting the conversation from risks to benefits, those fears could be assuaged — and some say the health care industry can provide a positive example.

On a panel Monday at the SXSWedu education technology conference in Austin, Stephen Coller, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation closely tied to inBloom, said the electronic medical records (EMR) legislation that accompanied the stimulus package played a crucial role in elevating public discussion and action around patient access to their data, and he’d like to see something comparable happen in education.

Privacy concerns related to health data certainly continue and, he acknowledged, the EMR effort is still in early days. But Coller emphasized that electronic records helped raise public dialogue around patient data and empower people to believe that they should be able to access their data.

“Unless you give parents access to data and you make them aware that they should have access to data, we’re not going to make fundamental progress on this issue,” he said. “We seem to be heading in the right direction in health care, the debate in education shouldn’t be that different.”

Right now, the conversation around privacy and student data is full of misinformation and irrationality, he said, and too many schools believe it’s only the vendors, not the parents and schools, who own student data — but by focusing on outcomes he hopes that could change.

Already, companies like Bellevue, Wash.-based Dreambox Learning are showing how adaptive lessons and real-time reporting can personalize instruction. Startups like Kickboard and Civitas are starting to show schools and parents the value of capturing and analyzing student data. And, at SXSWedu this week, several vendors are demonstrating the applications of inBloom (we’ll have more on that later this week.)

But Coller raised another interesting idea: a “digital student report card” (which, he said, President Obama once surfaced on the campaign trail in 2008) that, like an EMR, would give parents a digital record of their child’s educational progress.

“The notion that every student in this country is entitled to a digital report card, to me, seems like a fundamental civic right and strikes me as non-controversial,” he told me after the panel. “To any parent in the system, it would seem like a sensible idea – it’s their child, their school system, their tax dollars. The fact that they don’t have a line of sight into where their students are… has to improve. And I think it begins with putting more power in the hands of parents and caregivers.”

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