This article was first posted on Getting Smart on July 15, 2014


System Network

As a parent, I demand the right to have my children’s data used by schools, researchers, content providers, and other 3rd parties. My kids deserve no less than for their learning institutions to use every tool possible to improve their education and enhance their learning.

Warm, caring, competent professional educators came within an inch of beating the love of math out of my precocious, curious math kid. How? By making him repeat mastered material three years in a row. Why? Because they had no diagnostic tools to assess what he really knew and could do beyond grade level. Or perhaps they did, but worked in a culture that didn’t support using data to make such decisions.

Data gives power to students and families. It takes accountability from some abstract plane to a very concrete personal one. “My son learns 3-4 times faster than you teach, learns by solving new problems rather than listening to lectures and drilling the same problem over and over with different numerical values, and needs an hour to a day to work on one challenging problem at a time – preferably collaboratively. He has mastered topics A-Q except M and P, and has some understanding of T, V, and W. How are you going to nurture his talent? I hold you accountable for this.”

Data gives power to teachers. If we know my child is confusing rates and ratios, a teacher can correct that one misunderstanding that is preventing progress. If we know in great detail where misconceptions are occurring, as they occur, teaching can include many such tiny just-in-time interventions for each unique student that allows that child to learn more quickly and deeply.

What would it take for a teacher to have that insight about every student? It’s tricky because if every student is learning as quickly and deeply as possible, then every student is at a different place: some are far ahead, some are repeating an area until they master it, everyone is spread out in their learning. How can anyone keep track of all that and how can anyone deliver instruction at all those different levels?

It takes two elements. The first is switching from a purely “push” model of instruction where the teacher lectures on the same content to all students at the same pace to a model that has “pull” elements where students have some independence in completing curriculum and have the opportunity to get help and personal instruction as needed. The second element is data that is collected and shared with the teacher as students learn.

This can be done with or without technology. I remember in elementary school I was involved in an independent study program – each student had a math book with curriculum, exercises, and answers in the back of the book. We would complete a chapter, and the teacher would give us a chapter test – if we passed we moved on, if we didn’t we tried again. It was a non-digital example of a mastery-based program. It worked, but it could have worked better. As students we couldn’t self-assess whether we were learning deeply or by rote, and the kind of one-on-one time doing math with a teacher that would allow that kind of evaluation wasn’t a part of the program (though it could have been.)

Pure independent study has its own flaws and challenges – learning in isolation from static, decontextualized content can be tedious and overwhelming. It allows students to learn at their own pace, which is wonderful, but at the cost of having a knowledgeable teacher provide context, connections, explanations, and critical emotional support through the frustrations of challenging material.

Pure lecture has the opposite flaws – a teacher can provide context, connections and explanations to everyone at once and emotional support as needed individually (depending on the needs and size of the class) but students who fall behind despair and tune out while students who master a concept quickly get bored and do the same.

But if technology is used to collect data, the equation changes. Learning becomes a blend of independent study and direct instruction. Consider ST Math as an example – this is a particularly advanced digital tool for learning math. It’s structured as a game. Students play the game and “level up” as they master concepts. But how does the game know when a student has mastered something? Simply put, through data. Every time a student tries to solve a puzzle, the software keeps track of successes and failures and uses that data to decide when to provide more challenging obstacles in the game.

This is all that data is – information much like the information that is collected when teachers assign quizzes. The difference is that rather than for a teacher to take time to develop the quiz, take time out from learning for every student to take the quiz, then collect and spend the time to grade the quiz (less time for multiple choice, more time for thoughtful feedback on work) the data is collected as part of learning. This means the teacher has more time to spend with the student who needs some one-on one coaching and every student has more time to spend learning. This is great, so what’s the problem?

The catch is the MIND Institute, makers of ST Math are a “3d Party.” They aren’t part of the school system. Should they have access to our children’s data?

The questions regarding legal liability and ethical considerations around data privacy are very real (with far more complexity than can be covered here) and need to be addressed thoughtfully. But as we navigate this issue, in my own school district and nationally, as a parent I consider this non-negotiable: my children deserve access to the tools that help them learn and the structures that help teachers create personalized learning environments for them.

When we address data privacy it is imperative to solve the right problem – the question is not how to eliminate 3d party access to my children’s data, but rather how to give parents and teachers control over how that sharing happens. Because responsible 3d parties like MIND Institute can help my kids to learn. Because they will use their data responsibly. Because my kids’ data can help them make their products better for all children. Please. Share my kids’ data with 3d parties like them.