student data new oil

The New Oil

EducationInvestor March 2014This column was first published in EducationInvestor Volume 6, Issue 2 March 2014.

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Personalised or adaptive learning, MOOCs, credentials, the flipped classroom: there are currently a huge number of hot verticals in education technology. All of them, though, are connected by one big underlying trend: data.

Data – or, more precisely, student data – is the new oil, as my fellow education technology blogger Audrey Watters puts it. Everyone wants it; everything is fuelled by it. All the same, a lot still needs to happen if all the stakeholders are to get the most benefit out of it. The discussion can be divided into three main strands.

Value and privacy

If you embrace today’s digital lifestyle, you’ll know that your personal data is the currency that pays for the services use every day: Google, Facebook, Twitter and so on.

Most of these popular services are free at the point of use – but there’s no such thing as free lunch in business. There’s an oft-quoted maxim in discussions about the technology industry: “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”.

Google and Facebook have built some pretty valuable companies based on their users’ data, while Twitter is currently experimenting with ways to monetise theirs. Interestingly, most users still don’t value their own data, and are fairly open-handed with it as long as they can use a service for free in return.

In the education technology market, the same rules apply, but that’s an easier play for some companies than others. For those that target the lifelong learner or offer vocational training, it’s a relatively simple matter: adults can make their own decisions about whether to swap their data and privacy for access to services or not.

It gets far more complicated when it comes to the K-12 sector, however. There are not only far stronger legal protections relating to children’s privacy; parents are far more concerned about their child’s privacy than their own, too. According to a recent survey by the not-for-profit Common Sense, 90% of adults are “concerned about how non-educational interests are able to access and use students’ personal information”.

Sharing the Benefits

For data-driven education to work, the platforms and services need to collect a lot of personal data from each individual student. This then needs to be stored, evaluated, and shared with third parties.

This process is what brought inBloom into the spotlight. The group is a non-profit that aims to build a centralised repository for student data in the US – but last November, 12 parents in New York filed a lawsuit, with the goal of stopping the city education department from using the service. Their fear was that information about their children would be shared with third party vendors or services, without their knowledge or permission.

In February, the New York Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit. But Leonie Haimson, parent advocate and founder of Class Size Matters, has promised to “continue fighting for laws… that would put strict limits on the state’s ability to share any personal information with third parties”. That would prevent organisations like inBloom from disclosing such information to third parties without parental consent.
With more and more firms entering the space, whether startups or established players, the free flow of student data looks set to become an important part of how education works. Take a look at McGraw-Hill Education’s acquisition spree over the past few months, and it becomes obvious that they see their own future as a data and service provider, not as a traditional publisher. Pearson and Blackboard have just announced a partnership that will enable the free flow of data between their different services, too. This, Pearson says, is “in direct response to requests from educators”.

Connecting the Dots

There are undoubtedly valid concerns about privacy – but putting that aside, there are undeniable advantages to collecting, sharing and analysing student data. One data set may not in itself seem that relevant, but when you have the tools to combine and cross reference different data sets, you can gain insights that would otherwise be left unnoticed.

Startups like AlwaysPrepped, for example, collect student data from a number of different services that a teacher might use. Instead of having a separate page for every service, AlwaysPrepped pulls all the information into one centralized dashboard.

It’s when you imagine that it isn’t just teachers who might actively use these services that things get really interesting. By way of example, parents could inform a school that their child is going through a difficult time, because their grandparent or beloved pet has died: this could prevent false alarms when teachers see a drop in performance and cannot explain why. If they have additional information on the emotional state of a student, they wouldn’t need to further interrogate them, and may even help by taking extra care.

A complete data record may one day be crucial when applying to colleges, universities or future jobs, too. Employers could use the data to make better informed decisions who to hire, and how to use and support new talent best.

Picture License AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Tommy Ironic

Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at

  • Andy

    “Employers could use the data to make better informed decisions who to hire, and how to use and support new talent best.”

    That opens up a whole can of worms. The first and most important one is : are those employers trustworthy? Imagine what someone who is not well-intentioned or who wants to make some extra bucks could do with all of that data. The biggest problem with allowing institutions and business to access people’s private data is the vast potential for abuse it generates. As you say, it is the new oil and many people will go to great lengths and pay vast sums to get their hands on it, including criminals, employers, insurers, government surveillance departments (today massively imbricated with private contractors), etc…

    We need to be very wary of this Panglossian vision which considers privacy to be a thing of the past and transparency the key to the future. In a perfect world, why not? But we aren’t in a perfect world.