If you just woke up to the impending student data crisis…welcome. It’s good to have you aboard. What may surprise many is that the issues raised by the NY Times article about Class Dojo aren’t new. They’ve been around for a while and a few individuals have been trying in vain to sound the alarm.

Schools have been slow to respond to the changes brought on by the digitization of education. Information about and generated by students is increasingly recorded and stored digitally but many schools aren’t ready for this. Students and parents are not aware that data is being collected and stored, informed consent isn’t asked for required and the data is often not secure.

The writings of Audrey Watters informed my early misgiving about these issues, and more recently Jessy Irwin and Bill Fitzgerald have flagged more and more concerns.

Ontario teacher Heidi Siwak raised similar concerns two and a half years ago and in response heard, in her words “crickets”. Royan Lee and Tim King both wrote extensively about the need for greater discussion about student data and The Association for Media Literacy supported dialogue and critical thought. I added my voice, writing about my concerns here and here. None of this had any noticeable effect.

A little acknowledged truth of educational technology is that most involved in it are proponents. They are excited by the possibilities that educational technology provides and rarely stop to consider some of the potential pitfalls. Skepticism and critical thinking is badly needed, but often in short supply, at Ed Tech conferences.

The watershed moment for US Education and student data privacy arrived in Spring 2014 with the shutting down of inBloom.  InBloom, a non-profit company that was set up with a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was to function as a repository for all student data, that schools could use to improve instruction. Under parent pressure schools backed away and eventually the endeavour was mothballed.

Ontario schools are less willing to formally collect digital data on students, so there’s never been an “inBloom” moment in the province. But that doesn’t mean that copious data about Ontario students online academic activity isn’t being collected, stored and analyzed.

A 2014 report by People for Education showed that Ontario teachers are increasingly using free online tools and resources in their classrooms. The main reason appears to be “budget cuts”. Teachers who can’t find what their students need at school, turn to the internet.

This is encouraged throughout the system. Education conferences are predominately opportunities for companies and educators discuss online tools. Education leaders encourage teachers to use these free online tools. They are a way to be progressive without spending any money. For example, Ottawa Superintendent Tom D’Amico publicly encouraged the use of Class Dojo. And, of course, The Minister encourages educators to use technology to make learning “more compelling”.

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Prodigy Math Game, an Ontario based educational start-up, is used in “dozens of schools and boards across Ontario”, often at the encouragement of school leaders. Yet few (any?) of those leaders, teachers, students or families are aware that Prodigy collects and stores student data and analyzes that data for marketing purposes. The Terms of Service for Prodigy say simply “SMARTeacher (the provider) respects the privacy of its users.”. Nothing else. No assurances of what data is collected, how it used, whether it be will sold, or any other vital information.

I wish that Prodigy and Class Dojo were the exception, but they aren’t. There are hundreds of similar online educational tools being used in Ontario classrooms that collect and use student data. And there are often no protocols in place to ensure that students and families are informed, that they consent to data collection and that accommodations be made for students who opt out of using an online tool.

Ontario must address this issue, and quickly. Hopefully the public awareness brought on by the Class Dojo article will help push things along.

What needs to be done?

  • Raise awareness of privacy concerns amongst educators. Julia Hengstler, an Educational Technologist & Instructor at Vancouver Island University developed a guide for teachers to posting student work online. Her work is BC specific, but each jurisdiction needs a similar resource for teachers. Teachers and educational leaders must know what to do and what not to do about student data. Teacher federations and the privacy commissioner need to step up.
  • Create a set of standard protocols ensuring informed consent before students use an online tool in class. This must be an “opt in” process. Unless parents consent, the student doesn’t go online. An alternative “offline” program must be provided for any student that chooses to stay analog.
  • Greater transparency for students and families about what data is collected by online services. Students and families should be able to go online, see what data is stored and be able to delete any data they choose. Data created by students belongs to that student and should be their’s (or their family’s) to do with as they wish.