Student Data Privacy
Report: Schools Are Being Duped by Marketers on Personalized Learning
Personalized learning often receives high praise for tailoring to the individual needs of each learner. However, researchers at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) have found that personalization is often a threat to students’ privacy and a clever way for third-party products and services to collect personal student data for corporate gain.
The NEPC last week released its 19th annual report on school commercialism trends, in which researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder assert that personalized learning is turning student data into a marketable product and extending the reach of commercializing activities into students’ everyday lives at schools.
“Although marketers’ school-focused efforts are often billed as ‘innovative’ and ‘out-of-the-box,’ many of them are little more than repackaged marketing strategies that over the years have been seen again and again,” the report noted. Many K–12 educators have echoed similar sentiments, saying there is nothing personal or new about personalized learning. Some educators even argue that personalized learning further standardizes and privatizes education, while creating more hurdles for teachers in the classroom.
“Commercialization in schools is far from new,” the NEPC report noted, since they are a particularly desirable marketing environment. “Schoolchildren represent a captive audience required to spend hours in surroundings that, from a marketing perspective, is relatively uncluttered. Moreover, schools confer legitimacy on any product or worldview promoted there.”
Yet, schools are taking the bait and marketers are capitalizing, largely by employing the following strategies found in the report:
- Appropriation of space on school property;
- Sponsored programs and activities;
- Exclusive agreements;
- Sponsorship of supplementary educational materials;
- Incentive programs;
- Fundraising; and
- Digital marketing.
These tactics are luring schools interested in personalized learning and creating a “surveillance economy” that normalizes relentless monitoring for marketing purposes, according to the NEPC report.
“The dominant beliefs currently associated with technology and economic development are leading schools and districts to change their policies, pay huge sums of money to private vendors, and create systems for divulging vast amounts of children’s personal information to education technology companies,” the NEPC report stated. “Education applications, particularly those that attempt to ‘personalize’ student learning, are powered by proprietary algorithms that may harm children as they implement theories of learning without policymakers or teachers being able to examine how they work or how student data are being used.”
Furthermore, the researchers found that education policymaking is falling short of its duty to protect students’ personal data and have outlined several recommendations for policymakers. Many of the recommendations seem standard: Legislatures should barr schools from collecting student personal data unless safeguards are used. They should also hold school, districts and ed tech companies accountable for violations of student privacy. Notably, the NEPC suggests requiring algorithms used in classroom software “to be openly available for examination by educators and researchers.”
The full report, “Asleep at the Switch: Schoolhouse Commercialism, Student Privacy, and the Failure of Policymaking,” can be found on the NEPC site.