In a sign of how prominent concerns about student privacy have become, the New York Times Opinion section this week featured a collection of viewpoints on the topic from people working in the field (“Protecting Student Privacy in Online Learning“). The most interesting (I think) perspective is from Tyler Bosmeny, co-founder of Clever.
I like Clever. They provide a platform for third-party technology companies to access student data, so that educators don’t need to manually update information with each product that they’re using. I haven’t actually seen it in action, but I get excited about this kind of back-office work that can make life easier for teachers and administrators.
However, I find Tyler’s NYT piece a little lacking. Basically, he responds to concerns about misuse of student data by stressing that Clever is very safe and that they stick to current laws on student data:
In 2012 I co-founded Clever, a platform that schools use to see what data they have and keep tight controls over who gets access…
We made a decision early on that Clever would only interface with learning software vendors that commit to upholding FERPA privacy standards – to my knowledge, we are the only platform with this clear stance.
The problem isn’t that I disagree with this approach. On the contrary, I think that giving schools more access to student data will probably prevent larger privacy concerns. Without an interface like Clever’s, educators may manually input student data into unsecure systems.
The issue is that the standards Tyler mentions don’t really mean that much. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was written before the creation of much of the technology we use regularly in education today. It is also, like a lot of regulation related to education, somewhat vague.
I’ve worked in education for years, often with the benefit of a legal team that can draft institutional rules for safeguarding student privacy. Even in such a situation, I’ve encountered many cases in which the correct FERPA-compliant response wasn’t clear.
I totally support a flexible approach to student data. As the edtech sector grows, there will be more and more options for educators to either get their job done more easily or improve instruction. If lawmakers take a strict tact on privacy, they may simultaneously hobble our schools and encourage educators to use unofficial tools that are even less secure.
At the same time, it’s important for edtech companies, and especially data-focused organizations like Clever, to be as strict as they can be and still get the job done. If FERPA (however it’s interpreted) is the only restriction on sharing data, then one new law, or a new regulatory interpretation from the federal government, could jeopardize business and education.