Would Student “Data Backpacks” Infringe on Civil Liberties?

By Eric Wearne

Eric Wearne, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Digital Learning Now! Has just released the second paper in its “Smart Series.”  Here is a review of paper # 1.  This second installment makes the case for two improvements based on school data. 

First, the authors argue that states should create a “data backpack” for each student, which would include a standardized electronic copy of their test and grade histories, their discipline records, their “personal bests” on various types of assignments, and other items, and which could be accessed and used as students move across grades, schools, districts, and states. 

And second, they advocate a “Learner Profile,” which would be a set of experiences and resources built from the information in the data backpack, to tailor education to each student’s needs; basically an educational activity “playlist,” based on the information added to the data backpack.

The authors come to these recommendations by identifying three key problems with the way we collect and use student information now:

  1. The current official transcript does not provide enough information for teachers to personalize learning from the first day of school.
  2. Customized learning requires an enhanced and expanded Learner Profile.
  3. Parents and teachers should have the ability to protect privacy and empower multiple providers to use and contribute to a Learner Profile.

These are shortcomings, and their recommendations are logical.  Still, data collection and data presentation for teachers are two different things.  Georgia has done a lot of work to make data accessible, meaningful, and useful to teachers already.  Gwinnett County’s accountability program attempts to make data easier for teachers to access.  And the state Department of Education has, for a few years, provided access to useful data at the teacher level.

There are some good recommendations in this paper.  Playlists are a strong suggestion, and are becoming easier to create all the time.   Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, and many other companies can predict products people will like based on their histories; this is the same idea behind these playlists, which would be customized to individual students. 

While there are advantages to these recommendations, the implementation has major implications.  Big data can be good, but also terrible.  We could end up with data backpacks in the form of RFID tags used to track students at all times.  While the authors have potentially useful ideas, the paper minimizes security and civil liberties concerns.  For example, the authors state that “In the end, it is neither utopian nor Orwellian to suggest that any information collected from participation in any activity at all (e.g., Boys & Girls Clubs, mentorship programs, outside tutoring) could only further bolster the Learner Profile’s ability to present a holistic picture of the student across every stage in a lifetime of learning.  But to work well, the Learner Profile has to be properly designed.” 

While it’s technically true that a Learner Profile would work better the more data it includes, it seems a fair bet that many parents would balk at giving a public school system access to detailed information on every aspect of their children’s lives, every day…and also asking their kids’ sports leagues, churches, and other organizations to contribute to this data system.  (Or maybe not.  According to the school district, few parents have protested the RFID name tags effort…and this happened in Texas, of all places).  

These data backpacks and learner profiles could probably lead to more targeted and useful instructional approaches.  But as we’ve seen with domestic dronesFacebook, the IRS takeover of health care, etc., the desire for ever more data availability tends to inevitably lead to civil liberties problems and privacy concerns.  While there are benefits to data backpacks and learner profiles, any law or policy enabling greater data sharing, even for solely educational purposes, should explicitly take civil liberties protections into account.

(Eric Wearne is a Georgia Public Policy Foundation Senior Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education.  Previously he was Deputy Director at the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.) 

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