Librarians and Teachers: Not Exactly Eye-to-Eye on Data Privacy

What’s your take on student data and privacy? Librarians, owing to a professional code of ethics that calls for the profession to unequivocally protect the privacy rights of its community members,  tend to take a strong stand in advocating for privacy. Not only are librarians responsible for ethically managing the PII (personally identifiable information) they collect about community members, but there are emerging concerns about the data our third-party partners (e.g., database companies, bibliographic software, research guides, etc.) collect when our community members use their products. Librarians are advocating for transparency and openness about data collection, its use, storage and more.

An area of concern for academic librarians in particular is the collection of library usage data for analysis within analytical systems. Colleges and universities are increasingly adopting software products designed to collect and analyze student performance data in order to identify those who might be struggling and require additional attention. This is driven by external pressures for assessment and accountability within higher education. Public universities are under growing scrutiny to demonstrate they are increasing retention and graduation rates – and some states are already tying these performance measures to funding. There is also internal interest on the behalf of administrators and faculty who believe predictive analytics systems could benefit the institution and students.

How should academic librarians respond when administrators request data on student use of research products, attendance at instruction sessions or number of books borrowed? On one hand we want to support student success but can we balance that with our professional responsibility to keep the data we collect private – and with our own need to demonstrate that the library does contribute to student success which can require the collection and manipulation of student data.

What about K-12 educators? They and their schools collect considerable amounts of student data, and they too work with third-party vendors whose products offer a wide range of educational technology services. Some insights can be found among these interviews that edSurge conducted at ISTE 2015 with teachers about privacy issues. Although the teachers, like librarians, are somewhat conflicted when it comes to balancing students’ privacy rights with helping them succeed academically, the teachers appear to be much less concerned with “big brother” watching what students are doing in their educational technology systems. Where the teachers may most differ from librarians is their comfort level with providing  student data – but only when they are in control of determining who is allowed to have access and the types of data provided.

As one educator puts it:

“I think companies are generally working hard to respect privacy,” explains Kerry Gallagher, Technology Integration Specialist at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts. “Sure, there are always exceptions. But with intelligent discussion that includes analyzing the benefits of using data to personalize instruction, we can find the right balance.”

Where Blended Librarians and K-12 educators will find common ground is in expressing  “a keen belief in that teachers need to have a voice in the privacy conversation—not just to learn how to be better informed, but also to have a say on any privacy policy and legislation that is proposed.” That said, the educators are concerned that “strict regulations” could restrain teacher creativity with instructional technology.

Academic librarians and their K-12 colleagues have worked together in the past to promote the value of continuous information literacy in order to bridge the learning gaps between secondary and post-secondary education. Perhaps a conversation about big data and student privacy is the next fertile area for discussing common interests and having a united front on privacy policies for student data. I tend to believe that our future college students will come to us with much more relaxed attitudes about the use of their PII and privacy rights. This is partially owing to their social media behaviors. But it may also be related to the greater use of learning and performance analytics among K-12 school districts. Tomorrow’s college students may simply assume that analytical systems will be in use to monitor their performance -and they may even gladly opt in for it.

Because they work closely with instructional technologies, and other types of systems where concerns about student data and privacy are surfacing, Blended Librarians should be taking a close look at the issues to help their libraries and institutions walk that fine line between privacy protection and student success.

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