EdTech, Student Privacy, Too Much Testing? Q&A With The Department Of Education
There are a ton of questions we need to ask about edtech, privacy, and student data. A lot of those questions are in my inbox–from the thousands of readers who have sent me feedback and comments to the article I mentioned above. It was clear that the conversation needed much more attention.
So I reached out to Jim Shelton, acting deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, who was panelist at the Student Privacy Zone Summit. The following is an unedited Q&A exchange between myself and Shelton. We cover a lot of ground: edtech in general, standardized testing, privacy, and more.
Jordan: I’m very excited about new learning technologies. Every time a developer shows me a new game-based learning or adaptive learning technology, it blows my mind. However, it is NOT increased student engagement, or more efficient content delivery systems making better content accessible to more students that excites me. Those are sales pitches. Instead, education technologies excite me because I can envision how they are going to enable us to address some of the negative learning and motivational consequences of high stakes testing. New edtech has the potential to replace standardized assessments with much more accurate and precise computer based assessments that take context into account. Of course, this is preferable. Not all individuals are the same and it is a fantasy to believe we can accurately assess them all using identical rubrics.
What excites you most about educational technologies? How do you imagine these technologies are going to impact the general and long term landscape of education in the U.S.? How can the Department of Education play a part in harnessing edtech to mediate some of the tensions around high-stakes standardized assessment?
Shelton: There are almost a dozen things that excite me about the potentially transformative impact of educational technologies, but I’ll try to focus.
Education technology does present an opportunity to reduce the time and attention placed on testing regimens, including the many tests it turns out take up much more time than those once-per-year exams. The Department has tried to help on this issue by using our grant funds to encourage development of the next generation of assessments – most recently a $350 million investment through a forward-looking grant competition. That said, forgive me for being a broken record, we need to invest much more in research and development if we want to make dramatic progress in the area of assessment. Because of limited investment in R&D, the field was not ready to respond to some of the more innovative elements of our assessment competition (e.g. cumulative assessments rather than one-time summative assessments).
In addition to reducing testing burden, there are many other exciting things that education technology has to offer. Top of the list is access. As we solve the connectivity issues and the cost of devices continues to fall, we can provide every student in every school access to almost any course. Every high school student will have access to every Advanced Placement course and foreign language no matter how rural or poor – or just small – their school is. And the quality trade-off of live versus online or blended courses is getting smaller every day – where it still exists.
Second is personalization. Being able to better meet students where they are with what they need is going to be by far the most transformative thing ed tech will do for learning – and frankly teaching – whether by allowing students to demonstrate mastery of knowledge or skills in a range of contexts (i.e. better more flexible assessment) or providing teachers with clearer, more timely and actionable data to enable more targeted support to individual students. It also can allow the use of complex adaptive algorithms to customize each student’s learning experience to his or her performance, learning needs and preferences. Imagine a world in which every student has access to their own personal tutor 24 hours a day. That’s where things are headed.
However, even the best personalization and ed tech we see today will seem like eight tracks in the years to come if we take full advantage of the opportunity that the broad use of education technology provides to dramatically accelerate our learning about learning. The ability to test and rapidly iterate instructional tools and resources to understand which produce the best results with whom will dramatically improve learning and teaching if we harness it. Khan Academy is important not only because it provides millions of students with new learning opportunities, but also because their use provides the opportunity to see what works hundreds of thousands of times a day. Combined with advances in learning science and instructional design, we should see an explosion in research and new significantly more effective tools and resources.
Last but not least is making teachers’ and school leaders’ lives easier. Applications to regularly send texts to each student’s parents about their child’s progress and upcoming assignments – immediate scoring of simple quizzes to give a sense of where the class and individual students are, collaboration tools to find great lessons or get advice – all of these have the potential to make educators’ lives better and easier and to allow them to be more effective. That’s why the President’s budget request this year includes $200 million through ConnectEDucators to help teachers build their skills and become better users of the ed tech tools available to them.
Jordan: Adaptive and personalized learning technologies open up a lot of really complicated questions. In order to provide individualized, contextualized, and adaptive learning opportunities immense amounts of students’ personal data is collected. This will become even more commonplace as learning software begins to employ the same sorts of predictive algorithms that Facebook, Amazon, and Google use to show us particular kinds of content before we ask. On the one hand, adaptive and predictive technologies have the potential to completely change the landscape of education in the U.S. On the other hand, folks are really skeptical and frightened of the privacy risks. Your office’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) laid out some best practices and guidance around student privacy. This seems like a logical first step.What questions have to come next? How can we create policy that protects students without creating obstacles for innovation? How can we regulate uses of data that we haven’t even begun to imagine?
Shelton: The first step is to have a set of principles about the basic rights and protections we think every child ought to have. Once we have those, then we need an evolving and layered (federal, state and local) regulatory framework that continues to change as the field evolves. Our new guidance is an attempt to build on the foundation that FERPA and COPPPA provide and have provided for years. We are evolving as the landscape changes and our hope is that states, districts and schools are paying attention to us and taking appropriate steps themselves. But there is a huge variance in how districts are protecting themselves and their students, which is in some ways completely understandable given the differences in their size and capacity, so that means we need federal and state regulatory frameworks that help close those gaps while also maintaining a healthy environment for new more effective solutions. This challenge is not unique, but it is pressing because our children’s safety is at stake. That said, we also don’t want unwarranted panic to result in bad legislation or regulation that robs us of the opportunity for the potentially fantastic advancements ed tech holds. That would be like someone passing laws that keep us from buying nice things because burglars might break in and steal them.
Let me add that in addition to our responsibility to create a robust regulatory framework to protect students, two other things are critical: (1) the ed tech industry needs to adopt some ethical standards with regard to the uses of student data and student privacy; and (2) we need to educate students and families to understand their rights and how to protect them. These two groups will always be on the front line of whatever is new in the data space and their choices will always be most determinative of how safe our children actually are online – even in school.
Jordan: I worry that, with the best of intentions, we could end up over-regulating around student privacy in a way that recreates the same two classes of education that already exist: the elite who buy private education, the others who get public education for free. Those who can afford to circumvent privacy legislation will be able to buy their children the advantages of data driven education get shockingly precise adaptive technologies. Those who can’t afford it…well they get what they’ve always had: lowest common denominator content and testing that’s not personalized and doesn’t take cultural and socioeconomic differences into account. Of course, this isn’t the only place technology introduces concerns around equality, accessibility, and socioeconomic class. And my concerns about access to adaptive technologies is hardly relevant when we consider the wide technology gap between schools of different resources.
Can you say a little about how the Department Of Education thinks about the resource inequality when it comes to challenges in education technology adoption? Could the digital literacy gap get so large that it becomes irreversible? Can you paint a picture of what access to computers and broadband really looks like on a national level? Can you say a little about how socioeconomic factors impact privacy concerns?
Shelton: I want to echo your concern that we need to address the digital divide as quickly as possible, but I also want push back a bit on a premise you keep asserting. If we don’t act, there is a risk that affluent districts and households get all of the advantages to ed tech that we’ve been discussing and that lower income families and schools are left behind. This risk is not just a matter of resources but is also impacted by the constraints districts feel they have to place on the devices, applications and infrastructure they provide.
President Obama launched the ConnectED initiative to accelerate the transition to rich, interactive digitally enabled learning environments that support the best teaching and learning experiences in the world for all students. But we know that’s not enough. As Secretary Duncan said in his recent speech at the Common Sense Media Privacy Zone summit, privacy and good technology aren’t at odds – students have to have both. And frankly I don’t see affluent families wanting to buy their way out of key protections. However, my anecdotal observation is that after those key protections, there does seem to be an inverse relationship between the restrictiveness of school district technology policies and the average income of the district’s families. In some places, BYOD (bring your own deice) has made this issue painfully obvious, and it doesn’t need to be that way. We can create regulatory and policy environments that still allow all students – especially those most in need of great tools and resources – to access the best that ed tech has to offer safely. Industry can pay an outsize role in making sure that happens.
As an aside, I would like to push you to expand your vision of what personalization means. Although it appears determinative of education and life outcomes in so many ways, socioeconomic status tells us very little about a student’s actual prior learning, current performance, particular learning needs and preferences, and interests. We can infer a little about what exposure and resources a student has based on his family’s income but not as much as can be inferred from his vocabulary, understanding of context, practice and reported support. I don’t have a naïve belief that ed tech will render poverty irrelevant, but I do believe that personalization will mean getting well beyond our current race and income labels.
Jordan: Privacy is certainly one big concern when it comes to educational technologies. But I’ve also heard lots of concern about increased centralization of knowledge. This is the “corporate oligarchy” fear. Some people worry that there’s something inherently undemocratic about private for-profit entities controlling educational content. Of course, these same concerns arise in debates about the common core curriculum. But an additional layer of concern exists when media companies like Google or News Corp are manufacturing hardware and/or content for the classroom. Blending educational content and media content inspires an understandable fear of corporate big-brother piping propaganda into our classrooms.
How do you respond to these kinds of concerns? What responsibility does the Department of Education play in making sure schools create free thinking citizens rather than subservient laborers? How do we protect small communities so that they remain independently empowered while simultaneously receiving the benefits that come from being a part of a gigantic and powerful network?
Shelton: All indications are that exactly the opposite is going to happen. Open architectures and open content are some of the fastest growing trends in education technology. From what I’ve seen, Apple, Google, Microsoft, News Corp and most new providers are creating platforms and tools that empower users to access a broad range of content and to control their experience. And to be totally honest, my personal hypothesis is that those companies that overly restrict flexibility and openness will not thrive in the marketplace.
Teachers and students empowered with technology have more freedom than ever to find the resources that best meet their needs, including alternative perspectives. Our investments in teacher training are critical to encouraging that freedom as is the Department’s investments in a free utility called the Learning Registry, which allows any application to find any registered learning resource wherever it sits. Many of the learning resources created with our grant dollars are also available for broad use – Open Education Resources (OER). At the post-secondary level, the federal government has given community colleges hundreds of millions of dollars to create high quality open content and courses.
Additionally, we can’t forget the powerful application of technology as a tool for people with differing views to challenge each other and collaborate. I’ve seen students debating the definition of citizenship with students from the other side of the world – and perhaps more importantly the other side of town.
The evolution of the media market gives you one analogue for what technology can do to a content market. If that’s the case, then we don’t need to worry about freedom and diversity of perspectives. We need to pay attention to the mechanisms to ensure accuracy and quality.
Jordan: I have to ask a question about video games. I’m a big fan of game-based learning. I’ve seen, just watching my own kids, how powerful video games can be as an instructional method. Clearly, video games are not the magic solution to everything, but they are one powerful tool that teachers can begin to add to their toolboxes. But there are a lot of barriers to classroom implementation. The biggest barrier has to do with resources and access to technology. But even in schools where resources aren’t in the way of adopting game-based learning solutions, there’s often inadequate professional development for teachers. Or, in schools that do have adequate technological resources, teachers find that students don’t have sufficient access to technology at home to make introducing game based learning successful.
What other obstacles to implementing game based learning or educational technologies do you see? And how does the Department of Education play a part in eliminating those obstacles?
Shelton: I too am a big fan of well-designed learning games as one of many tools for learning and teaching. I think there are three other big barriers to broad adoption in classrooms. The first is the hardest – the cultural stigma that people have to get over that playing a game is wasting time. The second is that in addition to training for teachers on how to integrate game based learning we need more and better tools that make game integration easier and more seamless and make the data more accessible. We have to make it easier and more useful for teachers to embed games in their instructional toolkit and daily routines.
Finally, with a few notable exceptions, educational games as a category need to be better designed and clearer about what they are good for and what they are not designed to do. While educational games utility is unclear, teachers are making a rational choice to invest their time in other strategies. But once a case can be made that the games will make a difference, I think things will open up pretty quickly. An innovator named Zoran Popovic worked with a well-designed learning game to integrate adapative algorithms to improve its performance. They then partnered with schools and districts to launch Algebra Challenges that resulted in students from many backgrounds solving literally millions of algebra problems and mastering key concepts.
The more examples we have like that the more quickly we’ll see broad adoption of learning games in classrooms.
Jordan: The current buzzwords in education are plentiful: teacher accountability, formative and substantive assessment, the common core, data-driven instruction, one-to-one technology adoption, character education. I’ve been an outspoken critic of these buzzwords, arguing that they obfuscate the issues more than they open a space for real conversation. In particular, I’ve written extensively about the problems with buzzwords like “grit, perseverance, and optimism.” Lucky for us, the conversation around education is always evolving. The words we hear today will be replaced with new words.
I’m curious how you think the conversation will change in the years to come? Which buzzwords will drift away and which will become more predominant? And in the political sphere, what educational issues will have a primary place in the 2016 presidential election season?
Shelton: I have no idea what the next round of buzzwords will be, and while some of the terms like grit, persistence and resilience have become faddish, there is important science and a fair amount of common sense behind them.
I think that one of the most important concepts ahead of us in education is empowerment. We’re beginning to see the ways in which technology can help students take control of their learning – moving at their own pace, going deep where they desire and exploring new areas of interest. Teachers are finally getting the tools they need to do what we’ve been asked to do for years – differentiate. With the tools available teachers cannot only create new and more flexible group approaches but truly tailor strategies and access resources for individual students. School leaders have an unprecedented level of transparency into individual classrooms and tools to engage teachers, students and parents. Parents have many new kinds of information and choices. All of these things will unleash latent demand for more and better solutions, and I am more confident than ever the world will respond.
And as to your question about the 2016 election – I would love to see education become a genuine election issue. Not based on some hot button, litmus test issue, but based on which candidate believes our kids deserve the opportunity to realize their full potential and is willing to do what it takes for each child gets that chance. Voters should ask candidates in the next election what they believe and what they are willing to do.Jordan Shapiro will be speaking at the Global Education And Skills Forum in Dubai (March 15-17) about game-based learning, educational technology, and the future of learning.