Student data privacy: what’s happening in 2015

The previous blog post on student data privacy prompted several discussions with people and organizations that are tracking student data privacy bills this year. The Data Quality Campaign, in particular, tracks legislation and provides other information related to student data privacy. I spoke with Rachel Anderson, Senior Associate, Policy and Advocacy, at DQC, who generously provided much of the detail in the information below.

DQC reports that it is tracking 182 bills related to student data privacy in 46 states in 2015, and that so far this year, 14 states have passed 27 new student data privacy laws. DQC finds the following themes, which extend beyond online and blended learning and into the classroom use of websites and apps, emerging.

  • Ten states have passed laws related to safeguarding data collected from students based on their use of a website or application. These laws often follow elements of the Student Privacy Pledge, which requires that organizations use data for authorized education purposes only, not sell student information, and not behaviorally target advertising.
  • In addition to laws aimed at providers, other laws have given school districts new or expanded responsibilities regarding student data privacy. Nine states passed such laws in 2014, and in 2015 some of these states gave further guidance or support to help districts with these responsibilities. For example, North Dakota now requires data sharing approval by the school board and implements data governance and transparency requirements and supports including data use training. Virginia has a new law to direct the state to develop a model data security plan for districts and to designate a chief data security officer to assist local school divisions with the development or implementation of data use and security policies.
  • Many bills describe some criteria or requirements that need to be included in contracts that states or districts make with providers, but these requirements vary greatly in their level of specificity.

In response to the earlier blog post, Rachel agreed with the concept that the loss of data to hackers is of paramount concern, and noted that many privacy advocates conflate data privacy and data security. She essentially captured the essence of my 500 word post in a single sentence.

Another observer of these issues—who prefers to remain in the background—shared with me two main ideas. First, he pointed out that data privacy advocates don’t speak with one voice because there are multiple groups with different philosophical starting points. Some bills that have been introduced just address the concerns of just one of these groups, while others address concerns from multiple groups. He put the groups into three categories:

  • One group is concerned about anyone collecting student information, including—perhaps especially—the government. This includes the federal government, states, and schools. This group is not particularly concerned about providers, but their proposals would limit data collection and usage across the board so would greatly impact digital content and tools providers.
  • The second group is specifically concerned about private providers monetizing student data, whether by selling that data to companies that want to advertise to students, or by advertising to students themselves. They are particularly concerned about companies working with schools, because the district select the providers, and parents have little or no input in the companies that are chosen.
  • The third group believes that schools, states, and providers aren’t being held to best practices relative to student data. They are pushing legislation that would require districts and providers to develop and adhere to best practices.

Second, he points out that another significant development is that student data privacy has received considerable federal attention in 2015, as opposed to 2014 when most of the attention and activity was at the state level. Although no new bills passed at the federal level so far this year, the topic became part of the discussion of ESEA re-authorization, other data privacy bills were introduced, and President Obama mentioned it in the State of the Union address. New bills fall into two main categories – those that create a new set of student data privacy rights/regulations outside of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and those that amend FERPA.

These are all valuable insights, and we are grateful to DQC, Rachel Anderson, and our other readers who are helping shed light on these issues.

Are student data privacy advocates fighting the last war?

As part of Keeping Pace research and other efforts, we are continuing to monitor issues and legislation related to student data privacy. In late 2014, with help from the Data Quality Campaign, we reported “Twenty states have enacted a total of 28 bills related to data privacy this year, after all states combined enacted just one in 2013.” We don’t yet have a tally for 2015, but it appears that this issue continues to be a hot topic.

Most student data privacy advocates appear concerned about the way that schools, states, and providers will use student data. These agencies and organizations have legitimate needs to use student data, but the concern is that these entities may misuse the data in ways that parents and some educators deem irresponsible or illegitimate, such as marketing to students.

I wonder, however, if that concern should be the issue driving student data privacy discussions. Perhaps, at this point, the greater worry should be about whether student data is going to be obtained by hackers, and what those hackers will do with the information.

Last week I received a letter from a company informing me that their servers had been hacked and my personal information may have been compromised. Today I received another letter saying much the same, this time from a hospital. Last week’s letter wasn’t such a surprise, but this one—from a hospital—made me realize that hackers appear to be targeting just about every type of organization (including the federal government) in search of personal information.

Then later I saw this article in Slate: Ashley Madison Got Hacked. Now 37 Million Would-Be Cheaters Might Get Exposed. (If you’re not already familiar with Ashley Madison, be careful before you follow links.) Ashley Madison is a website for online dating—more or less—intended for married people. Its business is based on helping people cheat on their spouses.

Leaving aside whatever you might think of such a business, it seems that there are few businesses that are more dependent on protecting their users’ confidentiality. Yet according to the article, even people who had cancelled their membership and were told their accounts had been deleted have had their personal information accessed.

The spate of data breaches, including from entities for which data privacy would appear to be a top concern, appears to demonstrate that the hackers are a step or two ahead of most organizations. Either there is no way to stop creative hackers, or doing so involves prohibitive costs.

Which brings us back to student data privacy. Advocates have concerns about the use of data by schools, systems, states, and providers, and seek assurances that these organizations will safeguard student information and use it only in ways that are appropriate. But based on the news reports that seem to come out nearly every week, no new law appears capable of truly protecting student information from hackers.

I don’t know what I would suggest to privacy advocates. Their concerns are legitimate. But the problem isn’t just the schools, systems, states, and companies that they know. The bigger problem may be the hackers that they don’t know. And short of ending all cloud-based use of digital student data—which is not feasible—no solution seems evident.

Announcing Keeping Pace 2015 report sponsors

Over the last dozen years Keeping Pace has evolved from a shorter, print-only report issued once per year, to an ongoing project that includes not only the annual print report, but also additional policy briefs (e.g., Digital Age Accountability and Teaching Across State Lines), regular blog posts, and an expanded website that houses publications such as the Proof Points profiles.

Still, the report that is released every year at the iNACOL Symposium that tracks student and school numbers, and policy and practice developments from the last year, remains the largest single publication. Our work on the 2015 print report has already begun, and we are pleased to announce that we again have a wide range of sponsoring organizations supporting the work. Keeping Pace 2015 sponsors are:

Apex Learning, which was founded in 1997 and is accredited by the Northwest Accreditation Commission, provides a wide variety of online courses to schools.

Avi Chai is a private foundation that, among many projects related to the Jewish people and Judaism, supports Jewish schools transitioning to online and blended learning.

Connections Education is a provider of virtual education solutions for students in grades K–12, and is part of the global learning company Pearson. Connections is a service provider for fully online schools across many states.

With chapters across California and in Nevada, CUE is the membership professional development organization for educators interested in personalized learning, technology, and other key online and blended learning issues.

Edgenuity, which is based in Arizona and is accredited by AdvancED, provides online and blended learning solutions including a wide range of courses and digital content.

Edmentum provides a variety of instructional and assessment materials to more than 8,000 school districts and nearly 14 million students. Edmentum products include PLATO, Study Island, and EdOptions Academy.

Global Personalized Academics provides virtual and classroom learning to help students across the globe transform the way they learn. The new company has been formed in part from the Blended Schools Network, which works with schools across the United States.

Idaho Digital Learning is the state virtual school in Idaho, operating as an independent government agency, and working with districts across the state to provide supplemental online courses and blended learning options for students.

iNACOL is an international nonprofit association transforming education to student-centered learning. The Keeping Pace print report will be released and distributed at the iNACOL symposium in Orlando in November.

K12, Inc. is the largest service provider to online public schools operating in more than half of all states, and also provides online courses and services to school districts

The Michigan Virtual School is the state virtual school in Michigan, operating as a state-supported non-profit organization working with local schools to provide online learning opportunities to middle school and high school students.

The National Association of Independent Schools is a nonprofit membership association that provides services to more than 1,800 schools and associations of schools in the United States and abroad, including more than 1,500 independent private K-12 schools in the U.S.

The Texas Education Agency is the state’s education agency; among its many duties it provides online courses to eligible students through the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN), which is made up of two components—the supplemental course catalog and the full-time online schools.

Quality Matters is a non-profit organization dedicated to quality assurance in online education, working across both K-12 and post-secondary education with a focus on creating quality standards in online courses, and helping institutions reach those standards.

The Virtual High School is a non-profit membership collaborative that provides online courses and extensive professional development to schools across the U.S. and internationally.

We are pleased that we have such a wide range of organizations as Keeping Pace sponsors in 2015. Historically, a mix of public agencies, companies, and private non-profit organizations, foundations, and associations has supported Keeping Pace—and this year is no different. The report reflects the diversity, knowledge, experience, and expertise of these organizations, and we are grateful for their involvement and support.

Ed tech fads and trends

This is the third in a series of posts looking at recently published reports on education technology. Earlier posts reviewed The New Media Consortium Horizon K-12 Technology Report and Education Week Technology Counts 2015, both of which have received a fair amount of media attention. An even more accurate and valuable presentation, recently given by Frank Catalano of Intrinsic Strategy, has received much less attention. Similar to the Horizon report, Catalano looks ahead at trends that he foresees in the next three to five years. As his title “Trends to watch—and fads to avoid” suggests, he casts a critical eye on recent developments and forecasts. He evaluates trends and explains whether he believes they are strong, moderate, or fads.

Trends he believes are strong include:

  • BYOD: he quotes data from Project Tomorrow, which is the best large annual survey of students regarding technology. He believes that content developers have to design for mobile devices—which many publishers are already doing—because of the move to BYOD (which inherently involves mobile devices, because BYOD doesn’t stand for “bring your own desktop” computer).
  • Concerns around student data privacy. He notes that this is not just an online learning issue, but applies as “consumer apps also enter the classroom.” This is true—and will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.

Moderate trends include:

  • Open educational resources, which he sees being driven by “foundation and government money.”
  • Freemium, which he describes as “products or services that have a useful version that is free forever, with an upsell for more scale (say, from individual classroom to school district level) or for more features.”

Fads are:

  • Believing that a single device will dominate, such as iPads or Chromebooks.
  • MOOCs (which he calls “faddish” because although MOOCs overall are a fad, parts of MOOCs are being repurposed into blended courses).
  • Digital badges.

I believe that the evidence suggests that Catalano is mostly on target. One area where I think he may be off is in believing that open educational resources will be a moderate trend. OER has been the next big thing for at least a decade—with some ups and downs during that time—but there’s no consistent signal that suggests that OER are about to become a major (or even moderate) factor in U.S. K-12 education. The problem with most OER initiatives is that OER proponents far under-value two areas of effort and investment that are undertaken by most providers of digital content: 1) the effort that must go into consistent upkeep of digital content after it has been created, and 2) the investment in marketing and “selling” the content to schools and teachers. The idea that a free product doesn’t have to be “sold” is wrong as it related to digital content, because schools and/or individual teachers have to invest time to make the use of OER successful. The result has too often been a set of open resources that are used at relatively low levels for a short amount of time, before they begin to fade due to a lack of upkeep.

Aside from my minor disagreement with Catalano on OER, his presentation is a valuable resource for anyone interested in exploring the hype and the reality in digital learning. Some of his discussion goes beyond online and blended learning into education technology more broadly, but much of it is relevant to Keeping Pace readers.

Oklahoma enacts legislation recognizing other states’ teaching certificates

We have previously examined issues related to teaching online across state lines in a report and subsequently in a blog post. As we originally explained:

“States require that teachers be licensed in each state in which they teach. This patchwork set of licensing requirements has not been a problem for most teachers over the last century, because so few teachers taught in multiple states at the same time. Mechanisms to allow experienced teachers to gain a license in a new state were created by each state for teachers who permanently moved across state lines. In addition, many states created alternative licensing mechanisms for professionals with subject-area expertise who wished to switch careers and teach in public schools.

Neither of these mechanisms is sufficient, however, for a new kind of 21st century professional—those who are teaching online and therefore able to reach students in multiple states concurrently. These teachers, who may work for public organizations, non-profit organizations, or companies, must go through a laborious and time-consuming process to become licensed in each of the states in which their students reside. Although the employers may be able to assist teachers in gaining licenses in multiple states, much of the burden falls to the teachers.

Our research demonstrates that reciprocity and alternative licensing methods are not sufficient to significantly lower the barriers of teaching concurrently in multiple states. Reciprocity agreements vary between states, and are often not mutual. They may also be only partial or temporary.

The report proposes a solution, in which online teachers would be licensed to teach in multiple states if they meet both of the following requirements:

  • Demonstrate that they are licensed and highly qualified in any state, and
  • Demonstrate expertise in teaching online via either of two methods:
    • They have taken and passed a professional development course in teaching online offered by an approved provider, which includes a course specific to teaching in an online environment offered by universities, regional education agencies, or national providers of accredited programs; or
    • They have successfully taught in an accredited online program for at least three years.

Oklahoma has recently enacted legislation that addresses this issue. The bill allows a teacher with a teaching certificate from another state to get a comparable Oklahoma teaching certificate if the individual has 5 years of successful teaching experience at an accredited school:

“The Board shall issue a certificate to teach to a person who holds a valid out-of-state certificate. The certificate to teach shall only be for those subject areas and grade levels most closely aligned to the subject areas and grade levels recognized on the out-of-state certificate…A person who has five (5) years of successful teaching experience as a certified teacher in an accredited school shall not be required to take any competency examinations in those subject areas and grade levels most closely aligned to the subject areas and grade levels recognized on the out-of-state certificate.”

Although it doesn’t appear that the impetus was online teachers and schools—it was more likely simply meant to enable teachers to easily move from another state and teach in Oklahoma schools—the provisions appear to apply to online teachers.

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