Permanent Record: Technology in Schools

That’s going on your permanent record is a phrase that people from my generation anyway are  likely to read as satirical.  We’d say it today in mocking reference to those anachronistic threats made by teachers or school administrators to record indelibly some transgression or truancy we committed as children. The permanent record, they said, would follow us throughout time.  College admissions boards would know the trajectory of every spitball ever fired, or future, prospective employers would read every intercepted love note ever passed.  Of course, unless a kid committed an actual crime (and sometimes even then), the proverbial permanent record was usually a monster in the closet to be ridiculed in hindsight. But today, as technology is increasingly integrated into K-12 schools around the country, the idea of the permanent record returns, not as a fictional specter, but as a very real and pervasive concern for parents and the current generation of school kids.

This past August, California became the first state to enact a law that prohibits educational websites, apps, or cloud services used by schools from selling or disclosing personal information about students; from using collected data to market to students; and/or from compiling dossiers about students.  According to Natasha Singer writing for The New York Times, “The law is a response to growing parental concern that sensitive information about children — like data about learning disabilities, disciplinary problems or family trauma — might be disseminated and disclosed, potentially hampering college or career prospects.”

California is not the only state to begin to address the issue of privacy or to impose regulations on data collection or data use via technologies deployed in schools; but this recent law does appear to be the most comprehensive to date and may serve as a roadmap for updating federal laws to address these concerns.  Critics say the existing Family Education Rights and Privacy Act is antiquated, “written for the file-cabinet era,” writes Singer. Other states have passed some narrowly targeted laws restricting, for instance, the use of biometric data collected in schools where student fingerprints or handprints are used to pay for cafeteria lunches.  Or as Singer’s article points out:  Kansas forbids districts from collecting biometric details on minors, and from surveying them about religious, moral or sexual beliefs, without parental consent.  And that sounds okay I suppose, but I’m trying to imagine the technology that is both an educational enhancement and a collection point of information about personal data like sexual orientation.  This does beg questions regarding which technologies are being deployed to what purpose, and what kind of student data is part of the interaction?

It goes without saying that state-by-state, district-by-district, we are bound to see a broad range of adoptions or rejections of various technologies used in schools, either for educational or administrative purposes.  And it’s a safe bet that the employment of each technology will be a manifestation of the often-absurd alchemy of politics and economics that drive all decisions within schools, usually with mixed academic results.  As is the case in all other aspects of modern life, I suspect certain technologies will help students succeed and others will help students fail even faster and more stunningly than ever before.  We won’t really know for a generation, at which point analysis becomes somewhat Heisenbergian as the observers themselves will have been altered by the catalysts, and the catalysts remain in constant motion.

Considering the broad spectrum of potential uses and abuses of the data associated with education technology, it seems essential that federal law mandate the broadest possible protections for students and their families.  Marketing to kids is a concern, but it’s penny-ante poker compared to the potential hazards of over-reliance on technologies to track behaviors, trends, or strengths and weaknesses of individual kids from kindergarten through high school.

In principle, I imagine the primary benefit of technology tools in education should be to make more efficient use of limited resources in order to increase benefits for more children; but these technologies should have to prove their effectiveness and should never come at the price of mass data collection for use by either the private or the public sector.  American education is already too bureaucratic.  Politicians hobble our best teachers and reward our laziest ones with state-mandated tests and curricula that have little to do with actual learning; students apply to college now via computer and are lucky if human contact is part of the application process; and certain regions and economic sectors are still diagnosis-heavy, overeager to rely on psychotropic pharmaceuticals to address behavioral challenges that might not warrant drug therapy.  With these and other trends, we often do treat contemporary students as compilations of data, sometimes forgetting to see the children. So, if we already take too much of a bean-counter’s approach to education, and we pair that with technologies sold by companies that commoditize the counting of beans, don’t we risk fostering a generation of bean dip?

© 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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One comment

  • Glad you are writing about this, and always happy to see Natasha Singer quoted. She has done excellent investigative work on issues surrounding data-privacy. It’s particularly important that California lead the way in the data-privacy arena considering that they are home to some of the most influential data-mining companies (and not just the obvious ones).

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