To Advance Learning, Addressing Privacy Fears Is Essential

To Advance Learning, Addressing Privacy Fears Is Essential

Too often, debates about students’ privacy are conducted within an isolated context of digital privacy law, instead of where they really belong––within discussions about improving teaching and learning. Parents are becoming more worried about students’ privacy because they hear a lot about risks and not enough about how students’ information can advance teaching and learning.

Efforts to improve pre-K–12 education usually include ideas for transforming standardized teaching practices that many schools have been using for decades. Anyone who has spent time in a classroom recognizes that a lecture format––the “sage on the stage”––is one of the worst ways to convey information, let alone to engage the interest and curiosity of students. Just as important, classroom practices are too often based on what education expert Ken Robinson and others call the “production line mentality,” whereby we organize children by age groups and present subjects in standardized batches and time periods.

Innovative teachers and education leaders are working on ways to move beyond one-size-fits-all approaches and to build learning experiences that are appropriate for each student’s age, developmental level, and interests. But creating and customizing those learning experiences requires educators to use students’ personal information. We cannot develop or implement personalized learning tools without knowing more about how each child is doing, for example areas where she is showing strengths or needs more guidance, and topics that fascinate him or leave him distracted.

This process includes evaluation and assessment, which are crucial aspects of the smart use of students’ data. One of the loudest––and not unreasonable––complaints from K–12 parents today is about the amount of time and energy devoted to standardized testing. Most teachers agree and would prefer to spend less time testing and more time teaching. Smarter use of individual students’ information can help the continued development of computerized adaptive evaluations that should take less time and better measure how students are progressing and where they need more support.

Without students’ data, educators can’t effectively evaluate their own work. How will teachers and principals understand which tools and practices are effective in the classroom, without using individual students’ information in their evaluations? They might be able to determine that a given curriculum and approach work well for eighth-grade math overall, but they might also miss information showing that it leaves some students bored and others bewildered, or that the same approach doesn’t work with seventh-grade students. Researchers and administrators would be severely limited in measuring which programs and strategies might help an entire school or district to improve. Successfully changing classrooms and learning includes finding evidence of what works and how it can be improved and scaled. That’s very difficult to do without individual students’ data.

On a more practical level, better use of students’ information can also improve teacher-parent communications. Most teachers and parents grow frustrated by efforts to summarize a student’s development with a simple letter grade or numbered score; they know there’s more nuance involved. Imagine how much more productive parent-teacher conferences would be if teachers could use students’ information to share detailed portfolios, including graphics and dashboards, that show each child’s different strengths, accomplishments, and challenge areas.

These are some of the significant benefits that students’ information can bring to teaching and learning. Unfortunately, instead of learning about these opportunities, many parents hear mostly about privacy fears and security risks, so it should be no surprise that parents are concerned.

Smart use of students’ data is crucial for advancing learning, but it will become increasingly difficult to gather and use such information if we don’t reassure parents and help them understand how access to students’ information and technology can improve their children’s learning experiences and how teachers and schools are taking steps to protect students’ information.

That’s why data privacy should be discussed primarily as an education issue, not only because students’ information is essential for advancing learning but also because teachers and administrators are the most important custodians of such information. These professionals are also best positioned to communicate with parents about the importance of students’ information and the steps they take to protect it.


Consider these tips for talking with parents about students’ privacy. Start by emphasizing how to improve teaching and learning:

  • Focus on making a difference for their child, instead of talking broadly about innovation.
  • Explain why you want to make their child’s learning experience more personal and relevant.
  • Describe how personalized learning tools or experiences help to inspire and engage their child.
  • Show how these tools provide insights about their child’s strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Discuss steps you take to protect students’ personal information.


Alan Simpson has extensive experience bridging Silicon Valley and DC as a Californian who spent 15 years in Washington. He helps companies, educators, families, and others navigate policy issues – including to encourage adoption and smart use of technology, and to address concerns about student data privacy. He has worked and consulted for organizations such as the Internet Education Foundation, iKeepSafe, Common Sense Media, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Voices for Illinois Children, National Public Radio, and the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN).

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