Commercialization of ‘personal learning’ puts student data at risk

Digital technologies in schools are increasingly being used to push corporate marketing and increase profits, a type of “commercialization” that puts students’ identities at risk, according to a new report by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In Asleep at the Switch: Schoolhouse Commercialism, Student Privacy, and the Failure of Policymaking, researchers Faith Boninger, Alex Molnar, and Kevin Murray examined how technological advances in schools, plus the promise of “personalized” learning, have normalized the collection of personal data.

NEPC has been studying school-based commercialization for 19 years. They concluded in this year’s report that private, for-profit companies are driving an increased reliance on education technology, with a goal to make public education a “profit-center” where more services, hardware and software is sold to “brand-loyal” customers.

They said marketing through education technology now routinely engages students in activities that collect personal data and that “socialize students to accept relentless monitoring and surveillance as normal.”

“Schools and districts are paying huge sums of money to private vendors and creating systems to transfer vast amounts of children’s personal information to education technology companies,” Molnar said.

“Education applications, especially applications that ‘personalize’ student learning, are powered by proprietary algorithms, without anyone monitoring how student data are being collected or used.”

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act threatens to withhold funding to schools because of data misuse, and over 300 companies have signed onto a self-regulatory pledge that bans “behavioral targeting of advertisements,” the report said.

But researchers said that enforcement at the federal level is lacking and that the industry has failed to self-regulate.

“Without private right of action and/or a strong regulatory system in place, there is little to dissuade companies from engaging in profitable practices that violate the privacy of students,” the paper said.


To protect the privacy of children and their families from marketers and others, the NEPC recommended policies that include “strong, enforceable sanctions” that:

  • Prohibit schools from collecting student personal data unless rigorous, easily understood safeguards for the appropriate use, protection, and final disposition of those data are in place.
  • Hold schools, districts, and companies with access to student data accountable for violations of student privacy.
  • Require algorithms powering education software to be openly available for examination by educators and researchers.
  • Prohibit adoption of educational software applications that rely on algorithms unless a disinterested third party has examined the algorithms for bias and error, and unless research has shown that the algorithms produce intended results.
  • Require independent third-party assessments of the validity and utility of technologies, and the potential threats they pose to students’ well-being, to be conducted and addressed prior to adoption.

Report criticism

Not everyone agrees with the report’s findings, however.

Amelia Vance, policy counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, said the recommendations limit technological use in schools and, in turn, could harm student career prospects at a time when technological literacy is “essential” in today’s workforce.

“Implementing these recommendations would especially disadvantage children from low socio-economic backgrounds who do not have technology devices or access to commonly used apps at home,” she said in an email. “The report also does not acknowledge that policymakers have acted to protect student privacy: over 120 student privacy laws have been passed in 39 states since 2013.”

On the other hand, she believes the report underscores the need for schools to educate students on how to protect their personally identifiable information when using digital tools and online programs.

“Fortunately, teaching students digital literacy is required for the 95 percent of schools that receive E-rate funding,” she noted.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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