The internet of things (and of student data)

Internet of Things Venn Diagram

This week I attended a panel discussion of the Internet of Things at a design firm in San Francisco. If you haven’t heard of it, the concept refers to the so-called third wave of the internet. The first wave was a mechanism for distributing information, the second was the growth of social media and peer-to-peer communication. The newest wave, at least according to the hype, involves communication between things. For example, your car could tell your house about your recent movement, so that your house can guess when to turn on the heat before you get home.

It’s an interesting topic, but I was surprised to hear two of the panelists say that education was exactly the sector that could most benefit from data sharing without human intervention. It’s a bit of an odd opinion, for a few reasons. For one, use of student data that has been actively gathered (e.g. test results) is already controversial in many instances. Some states are considering laws that would restrict even the collection of data about students. If bills like the one in the California legislature become law, using passive data about students to alter education will be a much more difficult and touchy endeavor.

Additionally, the schools that stand to gain the most from increased data may be the least equipped to collect it. Unfortunately, penetration of technology in Americans schools is somewhat scattershot and depends to a large extent on the wealth of surrounding communities. The schools that could afford to implement data-collecting technology (about student movements, or use of facilities, for example) probably don’t have as much of a need to determine which students are struggling or what in particular is interfering with learning. Statistically, students from affluent or even middle-class communities are already fairly successful and well represented among our elite colleges. Schools in low-income communities, on the other hand, really might benefit from extra information about what is holding their students back.

As with many aspects of technology in our lives, the IoT is probably a question of when, not if. To make it really useful for schools and students, we’ll need a more nuanced approach. On the part of legislators, there is a lot of room for more flexibility. Barring companies from tracking students in any way will squash innovation. At the same time, tech companies and designers will need to be more sensitive to user worries. With adequate funding and privacy safeguards, the IoT could actually provide vital information about educational gaps. Without these key ingredients, it’s unclear what positive outcomes it can bring.


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