Who's Using The Data Mined From Students?

Information tracked by educational software can be of great help to teachers. But as Politico's Stephanie Simon explains, private companies can also monetize the data by selling it to marketers.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now along with the state databases we've just talked about, there are a lot of private companies that are involved in education. Software tech giants, like Google and Amazon, are involved, as are companies you may be less familiar with. Names like Knewton - that's K-N-E-W - or LearnSprout. Politico senior education reporter Stephanie Simon has talking with some of those companies for a lengthy investigation on the data mining of children. Stephanie, welcome.

STEPHANIE SIMON: Thanks. I'm glad to be here.

BLOCK: And let's start with an explanation of what some of this private software does. You write that the amount of data that is being collected on students is staggering. You say 10 million data points on each child each day. So why don't you give us a for instance of what that would be?

SIMON: Well, the companies that contract that much data on kids - what they're doing is monitoring everything a child does as they work through an educational software site or a digital textbook, play online games, watch tutorial videos - all of that kind of thing that kids do in class nowadays and for homework. And they could track everything about what a kid knows and how he thinks and how he learns. So for example the could collect information on does a child persevere when he is faced with the challenging problem or does he give up easily? Does the kids seem to zone out after he's read a couple paragraphs of text or can he stay focused through a whole chapter? We can track all of this information about you and store it to create these really rich profiles of you as an individual learner.

BLOCK: Along with creating those rich profiles there are ways that this data is being monetized, sold or some would say exploited. What is happening to it?

SIMON: Well, the goal for these companies in collecting the data is to use it to help the kids education. You can see how this would work if they can tell with absolute certainty that you struggle with fractions and you learn best by watching animated videos then they can signal to the teacher, hey this student really could use this neat video we've put together that explains fractions with some cool animation. The threat and what many parents are worried about is that there is no regulation stopping them from marketing that, from selling the personal profile to data brokers or others who collect profiles of folks or from selling it to companies that want to use it to customize and target advertising.

BLOCK: I gather from reading your reporting Stephanie that there were companies that changed their policies after you started inquiring about this for politico.

SIMON: Exactly, so there were several companies that either changed their policy or posted some more information online about their views on privacy. One of the most prominent is Khan Academy, which a lot of parents, students and teachers have heard of. Millions of students use it across the country and it started as a math tutorial site but the now have other subjects as well. And Khan Academy used to have a very dense privacy policy that gave them the right to use students personal information to send them customized advertising and to gather information about students from a wide variety of sources in addition to the sort of data that I mentioned earlier, that they can collect from just monitoring how kids interact with the material online. After I talked to them the day before the story came out actually, they change their privacy policy and they are much more explicit about trying to protect student data and not send advertising -- but they do so allow third parties like YouTube or Google analytics to place cookies on the students computers and then those third parties can collect and store information about the students web usage and that is all subject to the third- party's privacy policies.

BLOCK: You know, Stephanie I was struck by what the head of the firm Knewton told you, the data analytics firm. He said I'm not calling your child a bundle of data, I am just helping her learn. And he wonders why people should object to this. It helps children he says. What do you think the answer is to that?

SIMON: So Jose Ferreira is the head of Knewton. And that is a start up that is one of the companies that's the most excited about the possibilities for data mining of students. They've gathered information of four million students so far and they expect to be up to ten million by the end of the year. He's just very gung ho about this, and he says he cannot understand why people would object, because his goal is solely to provide information to students and teachers and parents about what their weaknesses are, what their learning styles are and how to plug those gaps. So to him this information is just vital for improving the education system. You know, for some parents they just don't want their kids to be tracked that closely.

BLOCK: Stephanie Simon thanks for talking with us today.

SIMON: Thank you.

BLOCK: Stephanie Simon is senior education reporter with Politico. You are listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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