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Aspen Institute Report: Learner at the Center of a Networked World – Protecting Student Data


• John Bailey

By: John Bailey and Dave Myslinski

Concluding a year-long examination of polices, practices, and the potential for a modernized learning environment, the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet yesterday released its findings in Learner at the Center of a Networked World. In this report, Task Force members outline a series of recommendations that will put individual students at the center of education.

The Task Force examined a number of issues ranging from broadband connectivity to access to online resources.  But central throughout the report was exploring the tension between the values of providing open access to education opportunities and protecting students and their personal data.

These tensions are growing as school systems are replacing manual and paper-driven processes with Internet-based systems and resources.  A new report from the Clayton Christensen Institute and the Charter School Growth Fund shows the number of services schools are using on the Internet to support everything from gradebooks to instruction.

The Task Force acknowledged the importance of protecting personal data and privacy, saying that “it becomes even more important in a networked learning environment, and systems will likely fail where such protections are not sufficiently taken into account.”  However there is a need to ensure the protections we put in place do not also have the unintended consequences of preventing access to educational resources or instructional opportunities.

Our education system has a responsibility to ensure students—including their personal information—are safe. It also has the responsibility to provide the best education possible to all students. The Task Force carefully considered all aspects to these two challenges to create an innovative education environment that can be trusted by all who use it.

The Task Force developed six action steps as recommendations for policymakers as they wrestle with this complex issue:

  • Foster collaborative efforts at all levels to establish principles of a Trusted Environment for Learning.
  • Invest in deeper research and studies on the efficacy of existing federal privacy laws, such as COPPA, CIPA, and FERPA, as well as various state laws, and seek recommendations on how to improve and modernize them or develop more effective alternatives to support learning networks.
  • Design, implement and evaluate technology-based approaches to providing a trust framework that addresses privacy and safety issues while permitting learners to pursue online learning.
  • As a condition of funding, require developers of learning networks and learning resources to make provisions to ensure interoperability.
  • Fund public awareness campaigns about the importance of and methods for acting safely and responsibly on and off-line.
  • Arm learners with the capability to protect themselves online through appropriate risk prevention education and teaching digital, media and social-emotional literacies.

ExcelinEd and Digital Learning Now have long been involved with addressing the emerging and ongoing concerns around student privacy.  We believe that in order for innovative learning environments to work, there needs to be a deep sense of trust among the teachers, parents, students, and providers that sensitive data will be secure and used appropriately.

In 2012, we worked with Getting Smart on a concept of a portable student data backpack, which empower students and providers to better use data that’s already being collected.  Just as an electronic medical record helps to integrate all the different doctors, nurses, and technicians to provide better care, so can a portable data record help unify an education system where a students in learning in a class, taking an online course, and using three online textbooks.

Last year, we developed model legislation for state lawmakers to ensure that student data is protected. The legislative language comprises three primary sections, each of which advances the goal of creating a trusted environment:

  • Protect Student Privacy: The suggested legislation would create annual audits, looking at what student data is being collected and stored. It would also put limits on how that information can be used and/or transmitted and what entities can access it.
  • Create a Chief Privacy Officer (CPO): This person would be tasked with ensuring the state department of education is compliant with all student data security and privacy laws. The CPO also would be the go-to person for any parental concerns/complaints about data privacy.
  • Establish Parental Rights to Student Data: The legislation would ensure parents/guardians are able to access their child’s student educational record.

Several other organizations have also created resources for policymakers as they think through creating a trusted environment for students. The Data Quality Campaign recently released an infographic and a video showing who uses student data, identifying the types of student data, how it’s used, and who uses it. And the Software & Information Industry Association has released multiple resources over the past few months, including best practices for safeguarding student data and policy guidelines for state and federal policymakers.

We plan to continue working with these organizations in partnership over the next year as well as building out additional resources to help guide policymakers and education leaders in strengthening privacy protections without overly restricting access to the very educational opportunities our students deserve.

New technologies enable education in America to be more innovative and have the potential to transform learning to become responsive to the individual needs of students. Lawmakers must carefully examine their actions to ensure innovation and privacy don’t fall victim to bad policies. The Aspen Institute’s Learner at the Center of a Networked World is the newest of a multitude of resources available for policymakers as they work to put the student at the center of education.


About the author


John Bailey

John@excelined.org