Protecting student data in the digital age
Friday, August 28, 2015
The wonder of technology has its downside, and one of the most driving concerns is the breach of privacy. In a digital world where almost everyone is online, sensitive data or information can be leaked with privacy undermined in seconds. Most of us don't even realize how much of our personal information is floating out there.
When student data is in question, there is sufficient cause for worry. And it's not just their social networks that need to be monitored, though that is warranted. The increasing reliance on online educational tools and third-party software to maintain curriculum has led to a new kind of data mining.
The student population has become a target demographic for many industries, and now these companies have ready-made information that can be bought for a price.
But the dangers don't end with businesses looking at data. Information like this makes students vulnerable to a wide range of both online and real-life crime. Perpetrators can use their personal information to get to them faster now, while others can use more sensitive data like sexual orientation or disability to reject students from job opportunities without actually framing these questions and risking legal hassles.
According to National Review, 95 percent of school districts today share student records with various private companies that manage school services, along with tech giants like Google and Microsoft. Only a measly 7 percent of them have actually bothered to sign contracts to prevent these companies from selling their students' data. Whether this is sheer ignorance or gross misjudgment, the lackadaisical attitude has already affected the student population.
In light of some high-profile cases, there has been much debate and protest over these actions recently. One needs to keep in mind that these cases are a mere fraction of the many that have not even been reported. That means more students are at risk than we know.
The supersonic pace at which technology and communications is evolving cannot be met with traditional ed tools. Most school districts do not have the resources to manage all the student data they collect, nor can they instruct students without these tools. They need the private vendors.
There is growing bipartisan concern about protecting the privacy of student data. Consensus on increasing federal mandates and penalties has yet to be reached, but the growing awareness of the dangers has paved the way for new legislation.
The proposed Protecting Student Privacy Act aims to prevent this from happening by mandating stricter safeguards on student data. There cannot be backtracking for online learning and digital tools, but there can be rigid rules in place that will protect student information going forward.
Another proposal aims to establish a study commission combining government and private-sector input to develop legislative proposals. Another group thinks the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is inadequate and aims to strengthen and update it. FERPA is a 1974 federal statute that is designed to protect private student information. But lawmakers in the 1970s had no concept of the Internet and online educational tools, so now the U.S. Department of Education is facing a legal nightmare.
A lawsuit, filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, accuses the department for promoting regulations that allow third parties to access private student information despite FERPA, which is supposed to protect them. Lax rules have allowed school districts to release student records to private or nongovernmental organizations without parent or student consent.
We need stricter laws that will prevent private vendors from passing on student information to third parties. Educational tools are going to get more sophisticated and refined, but information collated should be used for analytics within the industry instead of being auctioned away to highest bidder.
Big data is of immense interest to marketers, but this commercialization has far-reaching negative connotations for students and their families. These are critical policy issues that need to be worked upon right away, and action needs to be taken to protect our students better.
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