Online education run amok?

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Auteur : Caitlin Emma
Date de l'info : 29 novembre 2014

Education Data Privacy

Massive open online courses, first envisioned as a way to democratize higher education, have made their way into high schools, but Washington is powerless to stop the flood of personal data about teenage students from flowing to private companies, thanks to loopholes in federal privacy laws.

Universities and private companies this fall unveiled a slew of free, open-access online courses to high school students, marketing them as a way for kids to supplement their Advanced Placement coursework or earn a certificate of completion for a college-level class.

But when middle and high school students participate in classes with names like “Mars: The Next Frontier” or “The Road to Selective College Admissions,” they may be unwittingly transmitting into private hands a torrent of data about their academic strengths and weaknesses, their learning styles and thought processes — even the way they approach challenges. They may also be handing over birth dates, addresses and even drivers license information. Their IP addresses, attendance and participation in public forums are all logged as well by the providers of the courses, commonly called MOOCs.

With little guidance from federal privacy law, key decisions on how to handle students’ data — including how widely to share it and whether to mine it for commercial gain — are left up to the company hosting the MOOC or its business partners. In fact, student data is even less protected by federal law since the Education Department updated regulations in 2012 to allow for even greater disclosure of students’ personal identifying information.

Parents, activists and a select group of lawmakers are clamoring for a fix. They’ve made student data privacy a top issue in state legislatures, and they’ve even dismantled major data collection efforts. For example, massive parent pushback led to the demise of inBloom — the $100 million student database funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — a little more than a year after its launch.

The White House also announced this month that course provider edX will give low-income high school students free completion certificates when they take the classes. And Coursera, another provider, will give teachers free online training. President Barack Obama lauded both commitments for advancing his ConnectED initiative, which aims to connect almost every student in the country to high-speed broadband and transform teaching and learning with technology.

Congress is divided on how to tackle federal privacy law, and existing proposals haven’t gotten traction. Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) proposed a bill in July that would prohibit the use of personally identifiable information to target advertising to students. Some advocates says it doesn’t go far enough. But Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Luke Messer (R-Ind.), among others, want to ensure that fears over student data privacy don’t stifle innovation and make it hard for schools to use online resources that personalize instruction for every student.

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