The National Science Foundation earlier this month awarded a $4.8 million grant to a coalition of prominent research universities aiming to build a massive repository for storing, sharing, and analyzing the information students generate when using digital learning tools.
The project, dubbed “LearnSphere,” highlights the continued optimism that “big” educational data might be used to dramatically transform K-12 schooling.
It also raises new questions in the highly charged debate over student-data privacy.
The federally funded initiative will be led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, who propose to construct a new data-sharing infrastructure that is distributed across multiple institutions, include third-party and for-profit vendors. When complete, LearnSphere is likely to hold a massive amount of anonymous information, including:
- “Clickstream” and other digital-interaction data generated by students using digital software provided to schools by LearnSphere participants;
- Chat-window dialogue sent by students participating in some online courses and tutoring programs;
- Potentially, “affect” and biometric data, including information generated from classroom observations, computerized analysis of students’ posture, and sensors placed on students’ skin.
“We’re increasingly operating outside the parameters of FERPA,” she said, referring to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a 40-year old federal statute that remains the primary law in place to protect students’ privacy.
“We talk about modern privacy as being about an individual’s right to control the information they’ve entrusted to others,” Barnes said, “but it appears [with LearnSphere] that students will lose significant control.”
“In general, we have nothing against research that is done with fully anonymized data,” she said in an interview. “But I think that any university involved in such a data [repository] has to make sure that the original collection of data was done ethically, with full consent and notification. They shouldn’t leave it up to vendors.”