Student Success or Personal Privacy – Can The Two Coexist In The Future?


(The following blog was posted to’s Innovation Insights site the day before it took a “hiatus.”  Hopefully if the site goes back up, this blog will post there.)

I can’t seem to get the future out of my head.  In the past few months I’ve written blogs about 3 years from now, 5 years from now, and even 35 years from now!  For Digital Learning Day, I guest blogged about Google cars, contact lenses that do everything an iDevice does, and true adaptive learning.  Even in my day job, I am trying to help create a digital learning ecosystem by 2017!  All I seem to do is focus on the future!

So, as I listened to a debate on talk radio about the pros and cons of driverless-cars (pros won the day), a thought struck me about education technology.  One caller was expressing genuine fear at driverless cars.  While it’s possible the fear is similar to that which filled newspaper editorial columns when radios were put in cars, when cruise control was added, or when automatics displaced manual shifting – the world was apparently ready to end for each of those moments – the fear was quite genuine. But in this day and age of constant contact, EVERY innovation has evangelists and promoters as much as it has conspiracists and doom-sayers crying foul.

I know this first hand.  When my academic research team (aka – think tank) created the short film: “School of Thought” and put each 7 minute segment on YouTube, we heard from all kinds of people!  Trying to imagine 5 years out in a world where effective practices in neuroscience, learning research, and educational technology converge to create a platform of ‘best’ learning, was filled with touch points of terror for some.  Even though in many cases we were just ‘reporting’ (not promoting) likely paradigms, we definitely riled some viewers!  So, let me share FIVE “that-scares-the-hell-out-of-me” potential uses of Technology for educational purposes (I’ll channel Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtain in this debate, for those of you playing at home).  Neither the list, nor the arguments will be exhaustive, but here goes…

  1. Physiological profiling – this would include things like blood typing, brain scanning, and sleep monitoring. Ex: Placement of a student in a “late start” class due to sleep preference.

School of Thought video can be seen here:

*Con: The con side here is pretty obvious as the Orwellian contingent starts smoking from their ears.  Start talking about blood in the same sentence with learning and people will do a double take.  The creation of a database filled with biometrics would be ripe for any number of nefarious practices.  Knowing if a person was obese, had an illness, or was Type A positive would open that person up for targeted marketing, but more importantly would create a potential palette for some serious discrimination.  (Ever try the blood type diet?  You know, where type A eats X foods and type B eats other foods.  Yeah, didn’t work for me either.  Now imagine an educator saying Type AB students learned math better than Type O….)

*Pro: Researchers believe there is a direct link between learning and sleep, weight, cardiovascular movement, etc.  Blood tests can reveal if a person is indeed a “morning” person or a “night owl” leading educators to put them on appropriate tracks based on schedule.  Blood sugar might give a better understanding of Maslow’s basic needs being met prior to any attempt at learning.  We might guarantee success for students if we know this information.

  1. Persuasion Profiling – a few researchers (like Dean Eckles at Stanford) have created algorithms which can predict behaviors from web-based marketing via credibility vs passion vs logic (etc). Ex: Noting if a person is more persuaded by X content over Y and pushing X content in front of the student more often.

*Con: Identifying learning trends based on where a person’s eyes fall on a page, how often they visit a site, the word choices they use for searching, or what seems to motivate students to progress is over the top to some.  It starts to blur the line between free will and operant conditioning.

*Pro: How could educators not want every arrow in their quiver aimed at problems so far mostly unfixable?  Student motivation has been long argued as a sticking point by educators who feel more and more out of touch with learners.  Why not push the right buttons to convince, persuade, and argue a point, learner by learner, instead of simply taking the broad swath / shotgun approach used today (with increasingly poorer results, by the way)?

  1. Facial expression recognition software The human face can display somewhere along the lines of 10,000 micro-expressions which can increasingly be recognized, measured, and assessed by computers. Ex: Trigger an alert when a student is bored.

*Con: Research has also found that “mind-wandering” (what you and I would call day-dreaming) is a sign of academic health, creativity, and problem solving.  Preventing a learner from natural ebb-and-flow moments of focus and boredom, clarity and fatigue, is overly intrusive.  Besides, isn’t it the job of the educator to create environments that are motivating without resorting to tricks?

*Pro: Only people who train for years (and sociopaths) can mask micro-expressions.  So, a few Kinect cameras at the front of a classroom might indeed be able to ascertain the moment a student becomes disengaged or (worse) bored.  As boredom has been shown to push cortisol into the bloodstream and cortisol has been linked to everything from heart disease to obesity to depression, perhaps it is incumbent on educators to get help finding lost students, since most teachers cannot do this instinctively or effectively on their own.

  1. Longitudinal Data Sets – similarly to the health industry, we are likely not far away from students being tracked starting in Kindergarten and being followed through any / all degrees. Ex: With enough inputs of data, some schools believe they can predict a student’s final grade before the class even begins.

*Con: There is a significant ethics question about this.  Is it best to tell an educator, preemptively, that a student is likely to struggle?  That is exactly what these systems could do.  They might explain how a student has struggled in the past, just as they may push a bad paradigm that a student will not struggle at all.  We all know that significant change happens term to term and year to year – is this really a good idea?

*Pro: While it’s truly remarkable how often predictive analytics, when set up effectively, can be right, sometimes even based on rudimentary measures, many actionable measures are simply not as impactful without benchmarks.  Of course, benchmarks require trending data.   While some suggest we would want to purge student records every 5 or 7 years (like credit score information), isn’t a holistic view of learning over a lifetime more valuable to the educator AND the learner?

  1. Tracking Non-Academic – watching highs and lows in grade, engagement, and persistence based on home life, hobbies, and personality indicators are going to be a possible reality sooner, rather than later. Ex: Noting that a student struggles every October, potentially due to a Football schedule.

*Con: In our movie, we had a teacher noting that the middle schooler’s grades were slipping as it was soccer season, which had been a trend over several years.  Wow, did that ruffle feathers!  There is a desired, obvious line between home life and school life, possibly akin to work vs personal for adults.  After all, adults want the ability to tell a white lie about why they didn’t come in on Tuesday – shouldn’t students be able to do the same?  Not to mention privacy around family life, personal life, etc.

*Pro: Remember what Maslow taught the world – you can’t meet level 2 needs until level 1 needs are complete.  Ask any teacher if a kiddo who doesn’t get breakfast (about 12-17% of American students, depending on the study you read) can focus on learning and you’ll hear exactly what you expect.  No.  So, it stands to reason that there are significant non-academic elements in life which bring to bear problems in the learning process.  Parental divorce, focus on soccer season, or even season affective disorder (etc), will impact learning.  Educators having that information can intervene and create intervention treatments before it becomes a problem, rather than after it is too late.

datasecurityFrom my vantage point, there are really 3 possible streams of conclusion here.  First are those who take a privacy-at-all-costs stance.  Our lives are the business of nobody but ourselves.  School is just a component of that, but should not bleed any more than necessary outside those lines we’ve drawn so clearly.  Second are those who assume that today’s disconnected state will not change.  I often hear people say that the problem with conspiracies around data mining and privacy are moot, because the officials who control that data are so inept and the mobilization of large groups is almost impossible.  (Watson: Your hobby is conspiracy theories?  Sherlock Holmes: No, of course not. They’re pure sophistry. Large groups of people cannot keep secrets. My hobby is conspiracy theorists. I adore them, as one with a barmy uncle or a pet that can’t stop walking into walls.)  Do you suppose you could get over a half million educators to use at-risk systems telling them when to engage with a specific student, when many refuse to even use school email?  Finally, the third is the doctor analogy.  Your doctor will likely make a better diagnosis with more data or inputs, right?  I think back to the 80’s when AIDS spread, sometimes because those who suspected themselves to be sick, didn’t reveal it to doctors, instead trying to get symptoms alone treated.

The point of all this is that we need to look ahead.  Not a year out, but more like 5-10 years ahead.  This stuff is coming and will eventually connect to create amazing opportunities for both privacy disruption AND educational experiences.  Will we be ready?  Or are we solely focused on how to get teachers to put their grades in our current LMS and make sure students all have their books before the class begins…?

Good luck and good teaching!

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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