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Q&A: Data, Privacy, and Parental Consent with Lori Fey of Ed-Fi Alliance

Austin, Texas

Despite being a major player in the fast-changing world of educational data use, the Ed-Fi Alliance has stayed more or less outside the fray of the brewing battles around student data privacy.

Click to see more SXSWedu coverage.

A wholly owned subsidiary of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Ed-Fi Alliance, based here, provides software and related technology—for free—to states and districts to help them standardize their data, get disparate data systems talking to each other, and make educational data more usable for educators, parents, and vendors. Nineteen states currently license Ed-Fi's technology tools, as does inBloom, the Atlanta-based nonprofit that has run into significant roadblocks as it tries to become a data warehouse for states' educational information.

A day after telling attendees at the South by Southwest education conference here how to become a "Data Security Jedi," Ed-Fi Alliance president Lori Fey sat down with Education Week to talk about the positive powers of data, her organization's support for the data-privacy principles recently outlined by fellow nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, and the challenges of figuring out what effective parental consent looks like in the age of "big data."

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

I've been at SXSW for less than 24 hours and there have already been three panels on student-data privacy. What do you make of the growing attention on this issue?

We're unabashed advocates of effective and responsible data use. But clearly, privacy is a concern, and it's a high priority, and it should be. I think there are gaps between the policies and practices at work in the education data sector today and the capabilities of technology. I think there's confusion, lack of clarity, and a number of issues we need to tackle collectively so that we can be sure that we're safeguarding student information while also using technology to enable the improved use of that data.

What's a specific example of how data makes things better for students and teachers?

Here's a story. One teacher told me that some of the basic information, parent contact information, is often the most difficult to get on a campus.This teacher was so delighted that by using a web-enabled dashboard, they could abandon the index cards they had to create with all their parent contact information that they would take home at night. It seems unbelievable to me that in this day and age we would require that an index card would be one of the tools that a teacher would use for information-gathering, when they have so little time.

What distinguishes the Ed-Fi Alliance from the other players in this market?

The alliance doesn't collect or store data.

We provide [our technology] for free...[Districts] take in million-dollar Legos, so to speak. A huge amount of research and development work went into the technology, so you're not spending your precious resources starting with a blank slate of paper. You're starting a mile down the road, and using your resources to customize to your user's need and to your environment.

We foster a community that actually then contributes enhancements back for the improvement of the overall community. There's that component that then exponentially increases the value of the technology to the members of the community.

There seems to be an emerging consensus around some basic tenets of data privacy, such as ensuring that students' personal information is not used for commercial purposes and the need for appropriate data collection, storage, and destruction policies. What principles does your organization support?

We believe the three key principles of [Common Sense Media's] "School Privacy Zone" campaign have merit. We certainly agree with those. How to implement those clearly needs to be a topic of discussion and dialogue at the state and local level. They're simple, but they're not easy to do.

To what extent do you believe parents should have the right to opt in to data-sharing efforts?

I think parent information about data is paramount. There is certain information about a student that a school district is mandated to collect for funding purposes and a variety of compliance purposes. Information about that is something that parents should know. The ability to actually opt in or out I think is a conversation that needs to go on at the local and state level. I think its fraught with technical difficulties. I think in the end, parents do want their educators to know about their students. They want their kids to be picked up and dropped off at the right location by school buses. They want their kids to have access to their lunchroom account and get books out of the library, which are often online. They want their teachers to have information about what their student does and doesn't know so they can chart the right academic course. So I think that armed with the right information, parents would be more comfortable. There are probably cases when parents should be able to opt out, including sharing information with out-of-school providers. But I think parents need to do that with full information.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold for live updates from SXSWedu.

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