Data Ethics in Education

by Alyssa Seisser
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by Leah Powell

In recent years, there has been much discussion around how data is captured, used, and stored—and not just by large corporations.

Assistant Professor Josh Rosenberg, in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education, is studying how data science intersects with, or is used in, education—from inadvertently sharing student information to improving school experiences. Rosenberg and fellow researchers conducted in-depth research regarding the intersection of education and social media, with one essay detailing the effects of schools posting pictures of students and another explaining how social media was used to foster discussion regarding education standards.

When applying for college, applicants may have been asked to provide their social media handles. While it may have been seen as jarring or invasive that schools asked applicants to share this information, social media can sometimes be a conduit for schools to share their own students’ information.

In “Posts About Students on Facebook: A Data Ethics Perspective,” Rosenberg and his fellow researchers found that “public schools and districts use social media to share announcements and communicate with parents and the community, but alongside such uses run risks to students’ privacy.”

The researchers studied 18 million posts on Facebook by schools and school districts in the United States and found that “4.9 million posts included identifiable images of students and… approximately 725,000 posts included students’ first and last names and their approximate location.”

Schools sharing their students’ personal information prompts obvious privacy concerns, such as strangers finding childrens’ names, school location, or grade level; but there are other, and potentially more threatening, risks with schools exposing students’ data via social media.

The study found that “it is increasingly recognized that predictive policing companies regularly collect and utilize public social media data,” and “government agencies, including both the United States and other foreign governments, regularly access public social media data, doing so for purposes ranging from monitoring immigration and predicting crime risk to documenting social connections.”

The prospect of private companies and local and foreign governments mining social media for information about children is alarming, especially since “parents have long expressed concerns about others sharing…their children[’s] [personal information],” and because “secondary use of student-related [personal information] data runs counter to the Fair Information Processing Standards … that undergird Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protections.”

If a private policing company or a government agency used schools’ posts on social media to identify and take negative actions against children or their relations, then the students’ data would have been used negatively against them, and this could be against their legal rights.

The study does note, however, that media release forms allow parents or guardians to waive the protections provided by FERPA. Beyond the legality of schools sharing students’ images and

data on social media, the issue also raises ethical concerns. The study indicates that “child images shared in public posts have reportedly been found on pedophilia websites,” with one scholar asserting that “innocent photos of children originally posted on social media and family blogs account for up to half the material found on some pedophile image-sharing sites.”

The knowledge that innocently shared images of children can end up on abusive websites advances the ethical concern that schools sharing students’ data and images on social media could lead to child exploitation.

The threats of schools posting students’ images via social media raises real concerns for how students’ data is treated and shared. The threats, however, also illuminate the importance of data in education—both in how data is treated and how data can provide information regarding the threats.

Despite the real threats it can sometimes present, data in education and educational environments can be a positive force. In “Idle chatter or compelling conversation? The potential of the social media-based #NGSSchat network for supporting science education reform efforts,” Rosenberg and his fellow researchers used social media data to document how a hashtag provided a chance for those in diverse science education roles to have substantive conversations about Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The NGSS chat is a social media-based professional network used to discuss topics related to the NGSS. The researchers analyzed more than 7,000 posts on the #NGSSchat hashtag on Twitter and found positive results. Overall, the researchers found the #NGSSchat to be an active platform for discussing science standards with sustained conversations and involvement. Of those participating in the chat, it was found that “researchers, administrators, and teachers were the most active in the network, with no differences in both initiating, or sending, and being the recipients of, or receiving, replies as a part of conversations.”

Based on their gathering and interpreting social media and educational data, Rosenberg and researchers found active, sustained discussion on how to improve a corner of education. With the findings that “social media-based networks invite new visions for how to implement ambitious, large-scale changes in science education,” those in the education field can take the discoveries of the research that was driven by social media and education data to further improve their corners of the educational community.

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