Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S11
EDUCATION WEEK OCTOBER 22, 2014
Taking Stock of Personalized Learning > www.edweek.org/go/personalized
CONTINUED FROM PAGE S8
information behind the analyses, will
never be able to see or understand the
algorithms performing the analyses,
and will never know for sure what all
that information he or she generated
is ultimately being used for.
While such big-data-driven technologies
are now widely accepted in the
consumer world, she said, they deserve
harsher scrutiny inside schools.
"If Amazon recommends a book you
don't want, there's no lasting impact
on your life," Ms. Barnes said.
"But if a company says, 'You're not
good at math' or 'Let me steer you
away from this subject,' that can be
crippling to a student."
Making matters worse, many in the
ed-tech community believe current
student-data-privacy laws are not up
to the task of resolving other knotty
questions presented by companies
like Knewton, such as how long a
third-party vendor should be allowed
to maintain the information it gathers
The constellation of concerns around
data privacy were enough to topple the
Atlanta-based nonprofit inBloom earlier
this year, abruptly ending the most
ambitious attempt to date to construct
the type of data repository that might
make comprehensive learner profiles
possible on a large scale.
Beneath his hyperbole, Mr. Ferreira
acknowledges-and even agrees with-
some of the concerns that critics raise.
On the issue of data privacy, he
said, it would be "suicide" for a vendor
like Knewton to attempt to sell
students' sensitive information. "We
sleep well at night," he said, because
the company does not gather any information
that it can tie directly to an
But Mr. Ferreira also acknowledged
that many school districts continue to
do a terrible job of writing strong protections
into their contracts with vendors
who will be harvesting students'
data. And he conceded that parents
often have little insight or say into the
vast amounts of information on their
children that is already being shared
with third parties such as Knewton.
Both issues, he said, need to be resolved
in a manner that gives parents
more control over their children's
And when it comes to the fundamental
nature of schooling, Mr. Ferreira's
philosophy is actually quite similar to
that of many of his critics.
"There's too much testing, and too
much teaching to the test," he said.
"Schools are reacting to [accountabilitydriven
education policies] by drilling
students on basic skills, and it's just ruining
In his view, Knewton should be allowed
to take over that menial work,
freeing educators to do the kinds of
teaching that he believes really matters:
building students' critical-thinking
skills, spurring their imaginations, and
helping them understand difficult concepts,
make sense of ambiguous information,
and solve big problems.
Algorithm-powered adaptive software,
he said, "doesn't work if there
isn't a right answer" and an effective
means of measuring student proficiency.
Knewton doesn't even attempt
to "power" courses in fields that involve
a high degree of subjectivity, complexity,
and creativity, such as art, philosophy,
and advanced math and science.
"We're very careful to limit ourselves,"
Mr. Ferreira said. "We know exactly
where the borders are, where
what we do doesn't work
Conceptual and policy
problems aside, Knewton-which
has a significant
presence in the U.S.
higher education and international
K-12 sectors-has been comparatively
slow to grow its footprint inside
K-12 schools in the United States for
The company has partnerships
with Triumph Learning, a small
educational publisher based in New
York City, as well as two of the largest
educational publishers working in
the United States, Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt and Pearson.
But to date, Knewton is powering
only very limited slices of each
group's content offerings. Getting
its partners to focus on the business
and technical hurdles associated with
stitching together Knewton's learner
profiles across multiple textbooks,
subjects, and years has mostly been
Such companies also have a tremendous
incentive to not provide a
third party such as Knewton with
the means to build learner profiles
that cut across content from multiple
"This is a land grab, with many different
commercial stakeholders going
into the fray and trying to get a piece"
of the growing market for big-data solutions
in education, said Mr. MayerSchönberger,
the Oxford professor.
For the time being, at least, the
resulting balkanization in the marketplace
will likely be reflected in
schools, where unified, comprehensive
learner profiles are likely to
remain an aspiration, while smaller,
segmented profiles for individual
courses or publishers become an increasingly
Ultimately, only demand from parents
and schools is likely to change
While there are stirrings in that direction
among a handful of districts,
the complexity of the technology, concerns
around data privacy, and wariness
over the direction of K-12 schooling
still stand in the way.
Mr. Ferreira, however, remains undeterred
in his conviction that the Holy
Grail will eventually be found.
"Right now, the market doesn't understand
it," he said. "But we've got to
be ready for when the day comes when
keep student information
indefinitely, it increases
the likelihood that they will retain
outdated and irrelevant information
that will be used to make
important decisions about
I think people
is no silver bullet
for this particular
challenge. But there are some
pragmatic ways to make it work
and build stakeholders' trust, even
if it means forgoing some of the
who don't understand this
stuff should take more time to
think it through. I think you would
be insane to tell a student, 'We're
going to make your own data
disappear, even from you.'"
JOSE P. FERREIRA
CONTINUED FROM PAGE S8
poses other than that for which they were originally
collected. And under some circumstances, the law
requires that such records are destroyed after being
used for those original purposes.
A bill to update ferpa, introduced by U.S. Sens.
Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah,
in July, would expressly prohibit schools from using
third-party vendors that do not destroy students'
personally identifiable information after its educational
But exactly what that means in practice is subject
to interpretation. Oversight of the existing law has
been lax, at best.
And neither the current law nor the proposed revisions
would update the definition of what constitutes
a student's educational record, leaving much
of the digital data and metadata that is collected in
the course of building learner profiles unprotected.
'No Silver Bullet'
At the state level, meanwhile, more than 20 bills
enacted in the most recent legislative sessions
touch on the topic of student-data privacy.
California's new student-data-privacy law is
widely viewed as the most comprehensive state measure,
attempting to reconcile competing interests by
explicitly prohibiting online service providers from
"amass[ing] a profile about a K-12 student except
in furtherance of K-12 school purposes," and requiring
those providers to delete any such information
at a school or district's request. But the measure
also specifies that such operators shall be allowed
to maintain and use "de-identified," or anonymous
student information to develop and improve their
own educational products and services.
It remains to be seen exactly how such an approach
will affect the wide range of big-data approaches
being explored by vendors, but there is
reason to believe California's approach may point
the way to a workable compromise.
Ms. Barnes of epic called the bill a "good framework,"
while Mark Schneiderman, the senior
director of education policy for the Washingtonbased
Software & Information Industry Association,
said the bill "seems to strike generally the
Ultimately, experts on big educational data say
it will be necessary to establish-and maintain-
that kind of balancing act moving forward.
"There is no silver bullet for this particular challenge,"
said Mr. Mayer-Schönberger, the Oxford
professor, in an interview. "But there are some
pragmatic ways to make it work and build stakeholders'
trust, even if it means forgoing some of
the data's value." l
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - SR1
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - SR2
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S1
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S2
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S3
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S4
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S5
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S6
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S7
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S8
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S9
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S10
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S11
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S12
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S13
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S14
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S15
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Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S18
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S19
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S20
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S21
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S22
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S23
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S24
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S25
Education Week - October 22, 2014 - Special Report - S26