The Risk of Data Monopolies in Education

In EdTech, we take for granted the drive for efficiency and innovation generally associated with private industry. Occasional hiccups are often dismissed as the short-term cost of longer term innovation. The recent surge of investment has escaped being lumped in with still warm education privatization failures.

Everyone working in education right now agrees that the primary goal of EdTech as a business is to improve educational outcomes; profit is secondary, a means to that end and not an end in itself. Despite these good intentions, the devil is in the details, and a key challenge is the lack of consensus on how to measure student, teacher and school performance.

Recently I wrote about the idea of standardizing the certification of educational technologies, and on Tuesday, September 17th, an audience question came up during the NYT Schools for Tomorrow conference that raised what may be a key next discussion in this debate:

Who will have access to all of the educational data being captured through online learning services?

At Ponder, we have debated this issue at great length. Our answer? Something we call Fair Trade Data. But I’ll save that for a later blog post.

xkcd on Monopoly

Time to think about monopoly in education data (courtesy of xkcd,a/>)

Instead, let’s examine that question, which was posed at the end of the “Gamechangers” panel, moderated by Ethan Bronner from the New York Times.

Here are the panelists, from left to right, with the bios provided by the conference:

Daphne Koller, co-founder, Coursera
Michael Horn, co-founder, The Clayton Christenen Institute for Disruptive Innovation
Alec Ross, senior advisor on innovation and former senior advisor to Secretary Hillary Clinton at the U.S. State Department
Paula Singer, C.E.O. Global Products and Services, Laureate Education

At about 40:20 in the video, you will hear a question from Lee Zia of the National Science Foundation.

“One of the promises on the Big Data side and connecting [sic] directing to learning is the opportunity to share that data. And I worry a little bit that there aren’t any incentives for the various aggregators and collectors to do that sharing. So what is the Federal role if there is one, to try to move us in that direction, not to set the standards, but to get the community together to form those standards, so you might even see something like a national weather service, where the weather data is free, but commercial entities can compete on the services they provide on that data.”

The moderator, Ethan Bronner, passes this question to Alec Ross “…because he works for the Federal Government…”

[~41:10 in the video] Alex Ross responds that (paraphrased) ‘the federal government should keep out of it’; we need to let the market work on the “supply-chain” for delivering education, where those that “build the broadest and strongest partnerships will win the standards war.”

I can’t be sure what Lee Zia was looking for from the panelists, but I think it was more than ‘Should the federal government create data standards?’ And Alec Ross’ answer felt dismissive. It’s also possible that I simply wish he had asked the question that I wanted to ask:

Will all this amazing education data, often being generated by private entities, go the way of the giant troves of insurance, credit card and internet data, that are kept out of public hands in the name of trade secrets and competitive advantage?

Contrary to Alec Ross’ statement, I think the federal government should get involved, if only to steer the industry in the right direction. Ownership of this data is a pressing concern for everyone involved: students, teachers, schools, parents, policy makers, investors and technologists.

The NYT conference was laced with generalizations about the masses of priceless data being captured that would soon revolutionize learning. While the value of that data is still to be proven in education, I think we would all agree that

  • We want students to be able to switch freely between educational providers (something that is already a challenge in offline education);
  • We need education providers (public and private) to provide their data openly to outside parents, evaluators, auditors, researchers and the like to validate their claims;

I hope, though I’m less sure, that we could all agree that

  • We want companies to compete on how they make use of student data, not on merely having the largest stockpile of it.

So, where is that data, right now?

To pick on the conference panelists, the data is on servers at:

While it is early days yet in terms of the accumulation of truly “Big” education data, I’m not aware of the general availability of the data from any of these services to the public.

We need to start a serious national conversation about educational data, and set expectations on transparency before too many investment dollars get put behind ventures whose perceived value may rest significantly on the proprietary data they will accumulate. We ought to be strategic about managing the control of this data before it’s too late.

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