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The issue of data privacy in public education

published 6 July 2017 updated 6 July 2017

By Anna Hogan, Bob Lingard & Greg Thompson

Data has become the new black in public education. It is generated by students, schools and systems and collected and analysed by a variety of organisations. While traditionally data has been held by government departments, increasingly we are seeing commercial entities accessing and using this public data.

In a survey conducted for the Australian Education Union, 74% of teacher respondents indicated serious concern about the ethics of private companies collecting and using data generated in public systems. Concerningly, we haven't had public conversations about data, privacy and the ethics of these arrangements for public institutions. This is the moment to put these concerns on the agenda.

Technological advances have enabled large amounts of data to be gathered, collated and analysed from more sources more quickly. The National Schools Interoperability Program endorsed by the Ministerial Council and developed under its auspices, along with input from the ed-technology providers, seeks to ensure the interoperability of all software and data across all Australian schools and schooling systems.

To date, these developments have progressed somewhat under the radar. We think that there needs to be public and teaching profession debate about these developments as well. This goes to the question of who should determine public policy in education and the need for transparency in relation to such important developments.

In a public school data can be gathered regarding student attendance, behaviour, student performance on standardised assessments and a range of other matters. Data can be used to make judgements about what is happening within those schools. Data systems require high levels of technical and statistical expertise.

These functions appear to be outsourced to commercial entities and edu-businesses. When NAPLAN moves to online marking of multiple choice and student writing, possibly from 2018, even more opportunities will be created for the outsourcing of work traditionally done by teachers to edu-businesses.

This further highlights the problem of how student data is being used, for what purposes, by whom and the rights of the students, teachers and schools who produce this data. For example, one wonders whether parents give consent for their children's data to be used in these ways.

This is matter that needs to be at the forefront of policy debates in education. In our view, legislative protection is necessary. In Japan, for example, privacy legislation has been passed that ensures data can only be used for the explicit purposes for which it was collected. This prohibits the matching of multiple data sources to create algorithms to frame school systems, their policies and the practices of schools. There are also strict procedures for the wiping of data, when it is in the hands of edu-businesses. Such a legislative approach needs to be considered in Australia.

This legislative approach extends to contractual arrangements between school systems and school authorities and edu-businesses that are usually considered to be a commercial in confidence. As ACARA wrote in response to the release of our report, they follow clearly defined procurement processes to contract private providers to develop and administer NAPLAN.

However, these contracts are not available for public scrutiny. This means the public does not know how public monies are being allocated and for what purposes. We think it is time there was a public register of the contracts that school systems and school authorities sign concerning data, data management and analysis. This is already the case in some other parts of the world as in the Chicago school system, for example.

We think debate about these privacy and transparency matters is urgently needed now. These issues will only become more significant as data of all kinds are used to drive policy and practices in schools and school systems.

Dr. Anna Hogan and Professor Bob Lingard work at The University of Queensland. Associate Professor Greg Thompson works at the Queensland University of Technology.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.