Data, Education and Parents


flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

In a recent post, Will Richardson made the point that most parents have no idea what happens in school. This assertion was based on the seemingly meaningless numbers and grades that parents are feed through the rise of learning portals. Although I can understand where Richardson is coming from, I do not think that every school is the same. I know of some schools that share key learning tasks with annotations using various applications, some provide feedback to students and with that parents via the portals, some set in place digital learning portfolios curated by students and others provide monthly updates about attitudes and applications. What interests me in all of this is not necessarily what constitutes learning and achievement or what is exactly shared, but the impact of the move into the digital realm on parents.

As I have written before, there is a growing trend to use different commercial applications to connect and collaborate with the wider community. Whether it be Facebook Pages, Google Sites, Edmodo, Seesaw or Evernote, these spaces are chosen for a number of reasons, including their cost, the ease of use and it is where people are. I am reminded though of the edict that is often bandied around that if something is free then you are the product. Now I know that it is not always that simple, but I am left wondering about what data is collected by such platforms, either obvious in the forms of names, emails and phone numbers, as well as the incidental in the form of IP addresses and devices used.

Often the discussion around data and online privacy is focused on students and their safety. Whether it be posting images online or providing personal information which can be used as a point of identification. The reason claimed for this caution is protection from online predators, adults posing as children in spaces like Club Penguin. (Interestingly, danah boyd points out in It’s Complicated that more often than not, cases of online predators often involve those who already have a connection offline and shown susceptibility to such problems.) The problem though is not necessarily these extreme examples, but rather big data and the endless collection of data. In part, this is the intent behind the COPPA laws, which a designed to protect children from being marketed to. A few random data points may not mean much to you and I, but when they are fodder for algorithms they can mean so much more. As Audrey Watters explains,

Algorithms are not neutral, although they are frequently invoked as such. They reflect the values and interests of their engineers, although it’s hard to scrutinize what exactly these values and interests entail as the inputs and calculations that feed algorithms are almost always “black boxed.”

Therefore when we have investment from various venture capital funds, this is why we need to be mindful. It is for this reasons that there is so much conjecture around Google Apps in school.

The problem though is that this conjecture about data and algorithms goes far beyond students, it encapsulates the parents as well. Although sites may be private, this does not make them exempt from data collection. Even the fact that you might be a parent is another point of information. In addition to this, they influence habits. Here I am reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad:

  • What does the medium enhance or amplify?
  • What does the medium make obsolete?
  • What does the medium retrieve that had been made obsolescent earlier?
  • What does the medium “flip into” when pushed to the extreme?

For example, the use of Facebook Pages enhances documentation, can make communication via school diary obsolete, it retrieves a notion of learning through observation as opposed to tests and at its extremes normalises the use of digital spaces as a record and reflection of learning.

Another question that has been playing on my mind associated with the matter of data and the impact of openly sharing spaces has on teacher and student agency and identity. Maybe it is sharing information on a platform such as Twitter or Instagram. What restrictions and limitations are at play through seemingly being open. Does the feeling that we are publishing to the world both bring out our best, while also limiting what we share? While coming back to Richardson’s argument, I wonder if teachers are always clear about the expectations of such spaces, especially when they are continually changing. Also on the flip side, what are the expectations in regards to voices outside of the classroom and interaction within such spaces?

I am not saying that we should ban the use of such platforms, but with the introduction of digital technologies curriculum, it only seems logical that we should start where we are and unpack the biases at play. So what about you? What spaces do you use to communicate with parents and what expectations do such spaces bring.


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Data, Education and Parents by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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