Education researchers seek to understand risks to student privacy

In an age where massive quantities of educational research data are stored, analyzed, and shared in efforts to inform schooling and reduce traditional educational gaps, the education research community appears to be taking steps to better understand student privacy concerns and how to address them.

The National Academy of Education recently released a new report on the topic. A workshop on which the report is based was held by the NAEd to review the benefits of educational research using today’s data systems, the risks to the privacy of families and children, and technical and policy solutions for maximizing benefits and minimizing risks.

Big Data in Education: Balancing the Benefits of Educational Research and Student Privacy addresses the “tension,” the authors said, regarding the desire to access comprehensive data for research purposes while ensuring student privacy.

Workshop panelists agreed that there is a general failure in the research community to engage students, parents, and teachers in their work, and they believe a lack of transparency has led to mistrust and misinformation among the general public.

“I am afraid that even the research that was already done for years may be endangered by our failure to interact with the communities that are supplying and using data,” said Susan Fuhrman, president for the Teachers College, Columbia University. “My whole frame has changed, but we at the academy are very anxious to find out how to operate in this new frame and what we can contribute.”

Monica Bulger, a researcher at the Data and Society Research Institute, said researchers “need to show the value and benefits to students of this research.”

“Instead of thinking of students as data points, perhaps, while engaging in primary collection, researchers can use this as an opportunity, where appropriate, to talk to students and teachers about how their lives are converted to data points, and use this as a teachable moment to inspire an interest in research,” as well as to provide data literacy training, Bulger explained during the recent workshop.


From the perspective of legal scholars, parent groups, and privacy advocacy groups, researchers have done a poor job of explaining the value of collecting and using student data for educational research, according to Bulger.

Moreover, privacy concerns by parents, students, and advocates about data collection are often not about the use of research specifically but include concerns such as the public release of data or data used for academic tracking purposes (both short and long term), the report noted.

There is, indeed, a tradeoff between the fidelity of the data and the potential risks to privacy when sharing such data; it is an issue that researchers are beginning to fully comprehend, the report suggested.

“The more personally identifiable information enables greater generalizability and more accurate statistical analyzes; however, it increases the risks of reidentification as well as greater possible harm to individuals if the data are breached,” the paper said. “As such, it is necessary for the research community to determine how to ensure that such data can be shared in non-deidentified forms while minimizing potential security breaches.”

Some approaches to sharing data more securely, experts found, would be to use Data Centers, memoranda of understandings between data collectors/repositories and institutions, and Virtual Private Network access, the report said.


In summary, the academy offers the research community the following recommendations:

1. Communicate the importance of educational research more effectively and distill it in user-friendly language for teachers, parents, and students. Be prepared to present evidence of the benefits of educational research and the existing safeguards to student privacy. Use the acronym CUPS as a useful framework for communicating a research project: Collection, Use, Protection, and Sharing.

2. Adopt common terminology. Terms such as privacy, security, and confidentiality are often used interchangeably in discussions about student data, but the report provides definitions of common terms in the context of education and categorizes uses for those terms.

3. Build strong partnerships and models to ensure the sharing of data. Sharing and linking of administrative and learning process data can enhance teaching and learning, but stakeholders must come together to determine ways to provide access to the personally identifiable data needed to link such data sets, while ensuring that the data are not breached.

4. Better educate researchers and universities on privacy issues. The methodologies to protect the privacy concerns continue to advance, as do the potentials for hacking and misuse, the report said. Yet, according to panelist Amelia Vance, policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, “no college of teacher education has a course on privacy.”

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

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