Listening to the Public's Concerns About Big Data

With the advent and implementation of new technology comes the natural gathering of larger amounts of data, literally from each key stroke. Applied well, data transforms education from a standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to a true personalized learning experience for every student.
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On March 19, Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, gave the following presentation to school district technology leaders at the Consortium for School Networking's (CoSN) annual conference in Washington, D.C.

In the next two years, the future of truly personalized learning and student achievement outcomes will largely be determined on how effectively data is used. Success depends on addressing fast growing issues of how data is collected and maintaining student privacy. Right now the issues are largely being defined by reaction to public concerns -- some well-founded and some unfounded -- as opposed to a full discussion of what student data is necessary, for what it should be used, and what policies are necessary to ensure appropriate use and protection.

Make no mistake; failure to address these issues now in an active and transparent manner may well set back the promise of technology enabling teachers to achieve the learning outcomes for all students that we fervently seek.

With the advent and implementation of new technology comes the natural gathering of larger amounts of data, literally from each key stroke. Applied well, data transforms education from a standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to a true personalized learning experience for every student. Digital learning -- the effective use of technology to enhance teaching and learning -- and data do not diminish the role of the teacher; rather, the teacher now becomes an "educational designer," working with each student to maximize his or her learning opportunities.

Think about the student who was truly struggling and at risk of dropping out of high school. Perhaps the quick detection of a change in his/her performance in math led to a conversation with other teachers who saw similar trends, which led to the filling-in of learning gaps.

Good teachers try to do this for every student at every grade level, but time constraints make it impossible to differentiate instruction for every student every day. Enter the effective use of data that supports the student's learning objectives.

The nation has yet to realize data's full potential to support student achievement, but some schools are already showing real promise in moving education from a global, industrial age of teaching where every student was taught the same content in the same way, to a much more surgical approach to learning, in which teachers have the tools they need to meet every student where they are.

I compare the expanding use of data in education to health care. When a parent takes a child to the doctor, is he or she satisfied if the doctor only has access to the child's height, weight, age and, perhaps, past illness? Of course not. The parent wants that doctor to assess to every piece of relevant data that permits truly personalizing the care and treatment for that individual child.

Likewise, students benefit most when their teachers have access and can use the emerging data that permits immediate observation, planning and, when necessary, intervention. But just as health care data use and privacy became contentious issues a decade ago, so has education data become the same today.

Of course, this only adds to the pressure school districts are facing as they make critical decisions about implementing Common Core State Standards and the assessments aligned to them that measure deeper learning competencies, the changing role of teaching, and how to effectively use technology to advance student learning outcomes.

I have learned a lot serving as the co-chair of inBloom, a nonprofit organization that developed an infrastructure to connect disparate school district data systems into a single, secure access point where teachers can get a more complete picture of student progress. Another goal was to offer substantial security upgrades.

Yes, inBloom has faced challenges. But whether or not inBloom ever arrived on the scene, everyone from school district chief technology officer to third party vendors, is going to have to answer the same concerns and questions that inBloom has faced. We -- as educators, policymakers, parents and advocates -- must be willing to roll up our sleeves to listen to the public's concerns, develop the necessary policies to use data effectively while protecting student privacy, and then advocate for those policies and explain why use of data sets is necessary.

In the next year, each one of us must be actively involved in:

-- Listening closely to the public concerns that are increasingly being voiced about use of student data and safeguarding its privacy. We must also communicate frequently with each other to be aware of what issues are emerging.

-- Communicate how the promise for robust, intelligent lesson-planning tools using learning analytics is real but needs to be addressed with individual privacy considerations at the forefront.

-- Develop clear policies of responsible use at all levels. District and state policies must be in place to protect student level data and have processes in place in case of a breach.

-- Provide necessary principal and teacher training about the proper use of data including preserving student privacy.

-- Provide transparency regarding what is being collected, how it will be used, and who has access to the information is necessary.

-- Communicate to policymakers at the national, state and district levels to ensure they are addressing the right issues and not being derailed by misconceptions.

By using data in a meaningful and effective manner, we can individualize instruction for many more students -- helping those who are struggling and enriching those who are ready to do more.

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