Last week, California made made headlines for a bill that, if passed, could become the nation's most restrictive student data law. Under the bill, which is waiting for Gov. Jerry Brown's stamp of approval, there are three components: First, educational sites, apps, and cloud services within schools are prohibited from selling or disclosing personal information about K-12 students. Second, these groups can't use the data for marketing services. Lastly, they are prohibited from creating files on that data.
Despite the fact that the selling and marketing use of student data is already prohibited under FERPA and COPPA, fears remain among parents that it — despite the benefits to schools — could be leaked or used for less-than-desirable purposes. And that concern has become valuable political currency, as well.
With that in mind, we decided to look at a few ways data is currently being utilized in schools, as well as the concerns accompanying those uses.
1. Palm scanning
When Georgia's Muscogee County School District decided it needed a better process for students to purchase lunch, it went with palm-scanning technology. Using Meral Computing Services (MCS) software with Fujitsu PalmSecure hardware, the School Nutrition Department has implemented a simple service where a quick swipe of the hand pulls up a child's meal plan. What used to be an arduous process and wasted time in line now is a four-second exchange.
"It's a quick and easy way to help expedite the time spent in the lunch line to purchase meals and helps to ensure accurate, efficient identification of students, funds, and reports," School Nutrition Director Marian Bone told WTVM in August 2013. As long as parents have access to the student's personal ID number, they can add money to their child's account via an online site.
While this definitely appears to be a time saver — nobody is going to argue with the convenience of four seconds — some critics point to the fact that this technology is probably not cheap. It is the same near-infrared technology found in television remote controls and Nintendo Wii controllers, and, of course, some feel the money may be better spent on classroom supplies, books, and resources. While new tech and efficiency are great, it's also important to do a cost-benefit analysis. How is the new tool benefiting the school culture, and does the price match?
In terms of overstepping boundaries, we can see some parents uncomfortable with the fact that their child's hand print is now tied to their virtual school bank account. Since the money can't be used elsewhere, it likely won't pose a massive problem. However, there is something very "futuristic" about the process that may cause some to feel uneasy.
2. LMS and SIS
More of an obvious entry, learning management systems (LMS) and student information systems (SIS) provide teachers with academic data, behavioral data, and sometimes both. The platforms are employed by schools nationally to help with efficiency. Teachers can access a student's grades, whether or not they have turned in assignments, and any extra credit they've done, in just a few clicks. With the academic and behavioral combination, educators are said to be better prepared to come up with holistic plans for their students.
As is evident in our previous profile of eight K-12 LMS platforms and interview with Kickboard CEO Jen Medbury, these tools bring obvious benefits to the classroom. One thing to pay attention to going forward is the debate over how this data is being used. The three mandates in the California bill stop this sort of data from being sold to third-parties (even though, as stated above, FERPA and COPPA already address that very issue).
One argument that may gain prominence: The perceived reduction in security with cloud-based LMS and SIS platforms, since breaches may be seen as more likely.
3. Grading products
Products like BubbleScore take students' answers and quickly grade them. With BubbleScore, for example, students take standardized tests on an app (either on their phone, a computer, or a tablet) and then their scores get graded automatically and can be imported into a teacher's gradebook. The platform is lauded for efficiency when it comes to teacher grading.
As with LMSes and other systems, these products just need to be monitored to make sure the data stays in the right hands.
Another grading product, iParadigm, takes a student's written text and measures it against other writing to make sure nothing has been plagiarized. A technology like this is efficient when looking over student work, but its cloud-based nature may have some parents concerned about where the data can go. Let's also say a student plagiarizes on a ninth grade English paper that is checked with iParadigm, but never does it again. Will their slip up somehow make its way to a college admission's officer? This is another fear some parents may have.