Our kids’ privacy & a White House report on ‘big data’

By Anne Collier

Referring to a new report from the White House that she contributed to, social media scholar danah boyd points out how impossibly simplistic it is to view “big data” as either all good or all bad. I’m thankful for the balance it struck in its findings on big data in education between the tremendous opportunities it represents for students and educators and the risks to student privacy. It resonates with the about-to-be-released report of a task force I’ve have the privilege of serving on this past year, the Aspen Task Force for Learning & the Internet, which also urges review of privacy laws affecting children.

In the White House’s report, “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values,” it was good to see the statement that students “need appropriate freedoms to explore and experiment safely.” Yes, of course “without the specter of being haunted by mistakes in the future” (the authors’ qualification), but if policymakers act too quickly without careful consideration of laws’ impacts on students’ “freedom to explore and experiment” – as I feel they did with “COPPA 2” – education innovation and student engagement go down and today’s high dropout rates keep going up.

We don’t yet know enough yet. “There is not yet a settled understanding of what harms, if any, are accruing to children,” says the White House report, “and what additional policy frameworks may be needed to ensure that growing up with technology will be an asset rather than a liability.” And yet, legislators have already proposed 90 privacy-related bills in 33 states this year, Education Week reports. We can’t pass or even update laws without carefully considering the potential harms and unintended consequences!

For more on this, go to this section on p. 24 of the White House report: “Learning about Learning: Big Data & Education” and the blue box entitled “Protecting Children’s Privacy in the Era of Big Data.” The report’s recommendations start on p. 58, with the one related to children’s education in the blue box on p. 64 under “Responsible Educational Innovation in the Digital Age.”

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