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Weekly Trend: Is Student Data Safe on MOOCs?

This month’s Sony Hacks shed a spotlight on why it’s so vital to keep personal data online protected. Filmmakers, actors and top Sony executives were all affected by the damaging leaks.

But Hollywood isn’t the only industry scrambling to protect online data. Ed tech companies are now immersed in a conversation about data protection, leaving the future of massive open online courses up in the air.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act  protects the privacy of student education records in the United States, but it was recently determined that the data collected by MOOCs may not qualify for protection under the current law.

“Data in the higher-education context for MOOCs is seldom FERPA-protected,” Kathleen Styles, US Department of Education chief privacy officer, said.

Many colleges throughout the U.S. have partnerships with MOOC platforms, and a number of high schools also offer MOOC options to their students. This has raised serious concern amongst many parents and privacy advocates.  MOOC’s collect basic information like name, age and address, however increasingly are keeping track of more sophisticated data.

“As soon as they enter those courses, the platforms are going to start tracking data about pretty much every action they take on that platform,” Justin Reich, a research fellow at Harvard, said.  “Every click that every student has produced, every word of text they’ve submitted [is tracked].”

Complicating the fact that the federal government is virtually “powerless to protect data from students taking MOOC’s”,  two of the biggest MOOC platforms take different stances on the extent to which FERPA protects their students’ data.

EdX, founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, provides its services under the assumption that it will comply with FERPA requirements. However one of edX’s major competitors, Coursera, disagrees.

It “follows the ‘principles’ of FERPA but doesn’t think it applies to MOOCs,” The Chronicle reported.

Several universities that offer classes through Coursera have taken a similar stance.

“From a legal perspective, it’s our view that, because they are not registered as students at the University of Pennsylvania, they are not protected by FERPA,” Edward B. Rock, a professor of business law, said.

What does this mean for emerging ed tech startups caught in the divide?

According to Politico, “13 companies signed a pledge in October swearing never to sell student data or use it to target advertising at students. The pledge was signed by companies like Microsoft, Amplify, Edmodo, Knewton and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.”

Yet Politico noted that Apple, Google, and Pearson and Khan Academy are three big players in the MOOC business that did not sign the pledge.

Representative Jared Polis (D-Colo.) is involved in legislative conversations about student privacy, and he has emphasized the risks that come with focusing exclusively on privacy concerns and forgetting the educational innovations the platforms offer.

“A lot of the practices that occur instill fear in families and prevent them from taking advantage of these new services,” he said. “We need to provide answers and understanding so parents and families have the confidence that they need to have in their kids’ privacy.”

Katie Thompson

Katie is the editor of Shared Justice, an online journal for millennials published by the Center for Public Justice. A proud native of New Jersey, she now resides in Washington,…