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Promoting Innovation and Protecting Privacy in the Classroom

Big data technologies have the potential to transform teaching, learning, and education. However, development and deployment of these technologies must carefully consider student privacy. The Department of Education, the Federal Trade Commission, and other Federal departments and agencies are working with non-governmental partners to ensure that personalized, digital learning does not come at the expense of individual protections.

Though often invisible, big data technologies are a part of our lives, and will be even more so in the coming years. Earlier this year, Counselor to the President John Podesta and members of the OSTP team authored a report to the President with a clear message: these technologies hold great promise, but those benefits might go unrealized if we don’t get the policy right. Nowhere is that truer than in education, where we have the chance to transform teaching and learning through data, thereby improving individual outcomes and our national competitiveness. But when we do, we have to make sure we are protecting students’ privacy.

Student data can help personalize a single student’s learning experience to deliver better outcomes across populations. For instance, a mobile application that teaches algebra can pinpoint not only where one student is struggling, but also where the app’s own content could use improvement by assessing the performance of thousands of users. But that data is also sensitive; it will be important that it remains under student and parent control to the extent possible, and not used for purposes inconsistent with the educational mission.

That is why, as we carry forward the Big Data Report’s mandate to consider the intersection of big data, education, and privacy, we are also looking beyond Washington to some of the exciting efforts by the public on this issue. Earlier this year, the Aspen Institute, working with organizations like the MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla, released a national report highlighting the importance of making personalized learning opportunities in trusted environments available to all students. And earlier this week, the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software & Information Industry Association announced a new student privacy pledge, which includes critical elements like limiting data collection to strictly educational purposes, and banning the sale of that data to third parties. This builds upon progress by the Internet Keep Safe Coalition and the Data Quality Campaign to protect students while enabling educational innovation.

Personalized, digital learning need not come at the expense of privacy protections, and steps like these are an important start toward creating the confidence students, teachers, and parents need to take the greatest advantage of these new tools.

This is not a new issue — indeed, several Federal laws exist already to protect students — but it is one that is taking on new urgency. That’s why the Department of Education have prepared guidance and the Federal Trade Commission are maintaining up-to-date materials to help educators and ed-tech companies safeguard student privacy.

For our part, we look forward to continuing to engage with stakeholders in the education, technology, civil society, and public policy space as we continue to advance this important frontier in privacy in the digital age.

Dipayan Ghosh is with the division of the Chief Technology Officer at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.