We probably don't talk about it enough, but ever since we started in with the modern era of ed reform, we've been watching data collection push its way into more and more of the education system. Oh, it's just for the good of the children-- by collecting All The Data, we can learn exactly where the child's strengths and weaknesses lie and maybe even personalize an educational program for that child! Heck, Knewton (a division of Pearson) once bragged that it would be able to tell you what Pat should have for breakfast on the day of a big math test.
standards also make handy data tags so that we can record and organize and crunch all that sweet data. And folks would like to do the same for social and emotional qualities, so that we're collecting data not just on how well Pat does math, but how emotionally stable, hard-working, and good Pat is.
That is a ton of data, data that could be used for a wide variety of purposes. Children get a permanent record that follows them straight into hiring offices ("I see here that in elementary school you had a real problem with defiance to authority"). The Great Sorting can be kicked into overdrive, with children's data "scores" used to properly place them in society (see China). Social Impact Bonds actually provide a financial instrument that allows folks to monetize student achievement and data. And the whole Cambridge Analytica flap shows us how data can be used to nudge an entire country in one direction or another.
Folks are remarkably certain that this kind of data collection doesn't matter. I think often of a teacher at the silicon valley wunderschool, AltSchool. The school collected a prodigious amount of data about each child, but when an interviewer asked a teacher about the problems of that data, how long it would be kept, how carefully it would be protected, she replied "I don't know. I just have trust."
Trust is a big order. For one thing, hackers like big school-sized data vaults as a target for the same reason that Willie Sutton liked banks-- it's where the money is. We've already seen a group make a business out of cracking into school district data vaults and holding data hostage.
And now for those you who just have to trust, more news.
This week the news broke that Facebook would like to talk to your bank. Specifically, Facebook would like to look at your personal bank account, a move that Washington Post calls joining "a growing race among big technology companies seeking private information once regarded as off-limits: users' checking-account balances, recent credit card transactions and other facts of their personal finances and everyday lives."
Facebook of course swears that it won't sell the information to third parties or use it for advertising, and that may even be true for the first week or so. But information is money, and the free market loves money like an addict loves cocaine. Most of the companies that we think of as being in the social media business or the search engine business or the on-line apps business or even the on-line sales business are all, really, in the data business.
This is not a new thing. I worked one summer for a call center that took orders from catalog customers. One of that company's major sources of revenue was selling the contact information of its customers to other catalog customers. As the operator of this little blog, I get regular offers to sell me lists of contact information for people interested in everything from deep-sea fishing to a sports team.
Do not for a minute imagine that we can turn companies loose in the education sector, give them the power to collect mountains of data about the students in that system, and then be certain that everyone will just lock that data up in a sacred hands-off vault. When companies talk about cracking open the $600 billion education sector, they're not just talking about money selling books and tests and school improvement programs and charter schools and other education-flavored businesses-- they are talking about access to a huge ocean twenty-first century oil-- data!
Those of us who are grown adults get to make fewer and fewer decisions every day about how much we want to share with the many-tentacled beast that is our version of Big Brother. Do we have the will and wisdom to make sure today's children get to make their own decisions about their data, or will that freedom be stripped before they even have a chance to think about it?