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Why digital education could be a double-edged sword

April 5, 2016 at 7:50 PM EDT
Public education is becoming increasingly digitized -- these days, schools can compile everything from a student’s grades to their eating habits in online profiles. But while this technology facilitates personalized learning, it also puts student data at risk of being compromised and misused, and extra security could come at the expense of education. John Tulenko of Education Week reports.
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GWEN IFILL: But, first, school districts across the country are going high-tech, incorporating educational apps and digital programs into the classroom.

But fears about the privacy and security of students’ personal information are on the rise.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education Week reports as a part of our Tuesday night series, Making the Grade.

JOHN TULENKO: Miami, Florida, is taking on one of public education’s oldest problems: With so many students, how do you personalize instruction? One answer is with computers.

At Miami’s iPrep Academy, one-size-fits-all lessons are a thing of the past.

NICOLE RASMUSON, iPrep Academy: We all started at the very beginning, and then some just took off.

JOHN TULENKO: Nicole Rasmuson teaches math, using innovative software.

NICOLE RASMUSON: It’s about 70 percent online. And it’s a smart program, and so it checks, are they understanding, are they answering questions correctly right away? Are they struggling? Is it taking them a long time to answer questions? Do they keep making mistakes?

JOHN TULENKO: All the while, the computer is crunching and storing data about the students and sending back customized lessons.

NICOLE RASMUSON: It’ll ask them, what are your interests? And so, in the word problems, it’ll — if one kid’s really interested in food, it’ll talk about cookies and that kind of stuff. It’ll even ask them, what are your friends’ names? And then it’ll put their friends’ names in the problems, too.

JOHN TULENKO: All that gets uploaded, along with student schedules, grades, discipline records, homework and even e-mails, the makings of what some have called a digital profile, that privacy expert Joel Reidenberg fears could someday be used in unauthorized ways.

JOEL REIDENBERG, Fordham University: We’re going to have a lot of data floating around, with a lot of very detailed information that can be quite surprising.

One example: What a child eats in the school cafeteria is collected, using a student I.D. card. We can envision a day, for example, that a health insurance company wants to see what they ate when they were third-graders to decide how they were going to underwrite insurance. Is it farfetched? Could be. We don’t know.

JOHN TULENKO: Already, students’ data has been misused. Google was recently sued for scanning students’ e-mail accounts in order to build advertising profiles. The tech giant has since stopped and pledged, along with 214 other companies, not to use student data for commercial purposes.

But there are a whole lot more companies out there.

SUZETTE LOPEZ, Parent: I’m trying to protect my kids, and there’s so much data collection that’s going on right now that we we’re not even aware of.

JOHN TULENKO: Suzette Lopez is a graphic designer who sends her children to Miami public schools.

SUZETTE LOPEZ: It’s these third-party vendors that are what we’re partnering with, that we’re bringing them in. But then, how much oversight really is there with these partners? Who’s keeping an eye on that data?

ALBERTO CARVALHO, Superintendent, Miami-Dade County Public Schools: I think that’s absolutely a legitimate concern. But I think responsible school systems that have the appropriate policies and safeguards, quite frankly, reduce that threat.

JOHN TULENKO: To protect personal data, Miami Superintendent Alberto Carvalho requires that teachers and students use a web portal. All the apps and software inside have been vetted, and the companies must sign contracts that prohibit any unauthorized or commercial use of students’ information. These rules are strictly enforced.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: I can tell you, the penalties that we apply in Miami when private companies default on their contractual obligation, which is we bar them from future business with the school system.

JOHN TULENKO: So far, the district says, the tech companies have stuck to the rules. But at iPrep, teachers say they go outside the portal to use unregulated apps everyday. And they’re not the only ones.

I would love to go around this little group and ask you to name some apps that you have downloaded on your school computer that are not part of the portal.

STUDENT: I have downloaded ooVoo, Skype, Spotify, Octagon, so just the basic stuff.

STUDENT: Yes, I found, like, several very easy reach-arounds to the school Wi-Fi and the different barriers they put up. They’re pretty easy to go around. It’s not the most comprehensive barriers in the world.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: Isn’t that the definition of true human ingenuity? And there is no gadget, no amount of technology that stands up to the ingenuity of a kid.

But that’s where the social and behavior teaching come in. That is the most important thing we can do, is actually teach students responsible use, liabilities, but also the benefits of using this new technology in this new environment.

JOHN TULENKO: Even if students took those lessons to heart, their personal data, including names, addresses, and Social Security numbers can still be compromised. It happened in the case of Pamela Rhim-Grant.

FRANK MADERAL, Assistant United States Attorney: Pamela Rhim-Grant was a food services manager at the Horace Mann Middle School here in Miami, and she was found to have been stealing student identities from the Miami-Dade public school computer system.

JOHN TULENKO: In 2014, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Maderal prosecuted Rhim-Grant for stealing Social Security numbers from 400 students and using them to file fraudulent tax returns.

Exactly what did she have to do in order to walk away with a child’s Social Security number?

FRANK MADERAL: Login, access the information, print it out.

SUZETTE LOPEZ: My son’s social security was stolen. So, he was stolen and it took three years to clear up and three years to keep on telling the IRS that my son was my son.

JOHN TULENKO: Lopez’s family was victimized in 2008, well before the Rhim-Grant case, but the effect was the same.

SUZETTE LOPEZ: I went to go file my taxes, and I couldn’t. I’m extremely protective and I’m very careful about stuff, and for his number, which is not readily used, was shocking.

JOHN TULENKO: Miami school officials say hackers on the outside have never successfully broken in and stolen student data. But the growing amount of sensitive information stored electronically has driven lawmakers in at least 15 states to restrict what companies can collect and mandate steps to protect it.

That heightened security could put a damper on digital tools that personalize learning.

In Miami, Florida, I’m John Tulenko of Education Week reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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