A Call for Data Literacy

04/01/2015 08:32 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

We are increasingly witness to reports about poor deployments of digital platforms for learning that open up students' information to unintended audiences. This is a scary fact not simply for children but for digital citizens writ large; we are mucking through the "data age" and grasping for solutions as we think hard about digital technologies, privacy, and our basic rights. The stories coming from schools offer one important avenue to tackle privacy issues, but they make clear that we need institution-level reform. We need to cultivate students who are not only adept users of technology, but also capable of thinking critically about the costs and benefits of being a "data point" in a sea of digital activity.

We know from research that children best develop "21st century skills" with digital technologies, like computer programming, digital production, and online collaboration, when they can play, create, and share their online creations in a supportive environment of peers and adults. Federal and state education reforms, like Common Core, increasingly mirror these principles. Missing from these reforms are revised data management strategies that ultimately put schools in a tough spot. While schools are expected to integrate technology in the classroom to keep up with our fast-paced world of digital innovations, they are at the same time liable for the consequences of students' digital participation on their online networks. As a result, schools -- particularly those with fewer resources to vet and evaluate digital integration -- haphazardly erect bureaucratic practices that slow its instructional use.

These bureaucratic hurdles are practically insurmountable for teachers. Having apps for learning reviewed by school committees can take so long that the platform either cannot be integrated into lesson plans or it's replaced by something else on the market by the time it gets approved. Districts wield their highest level of authority over the router: although many schools today are connected to high speed wireless internet, districts impose blocks and restrictions on websites and apps that are perceived as potential threats, including games and communication platforms, YouTube, and sometimes even basic affordances like search engines.

These top-down efforts to maintain privacy for the school and its inhabitants actually stand directly in the face of how we know children learn best: through low-stakes play online with apps and digital tools under the guidance of caring mentors. But, the biggest problem emerges in the lessons students learn about their own data.

In my research, I find that as a consequence of schools' digital policing, students come to fear being themselves while online at school. Teachers discipline and punish students for opening YouTube on school computers, for finding apps that allow them to message their peers, or for even flipping between windows on their computers. Students report that they would rather communicate, play, and create and share their digital creations -- a kind of engagement needed for learning -- outside of school, due to anticipated repercussions. The lesson students learn is that their digital footprints at school are the threat -- not the real threats that come from how their data could be used by not only teachers but also voyeurs like private companies or government agencies.

If we care about young people's privacy, we need to teach them data literacy. Schools need to provide opportunities to educate children in the politics of data, including what it means, how it can be used, and how they can exert agency over their own position as a "data point." Rather than impose bureaucratic hurdles that blame teachers and their students for isolated privacy breaches, schools must provide youth with the tools they need to navigate the information age as informed digital citizens.

For schools to be able to teach data literacy, changes need to be made at the institutional level. I have two ideas to start.

First, education reformers must partner with the tech industry to pursue an accessible and clear set of guidelines for how student and teacher data are to be used across digital platforms nationwide. Schools need to be able to offload fears of liability for students' privacy into the hands of incredibly well thought out standards for data management that are required by all product developers. This would cut bureaucratic tape at the local level and better enable the kind of low-stakes digital learning and play that we know works.

Second, rather than hide students from the flow of data, we should actively embed youth in our process of negotiating it. Data literacy means developing a critical awareness of what digital footprints mean and how they are used. Let's think of ways to make available to youth the data we collect on them. I bet they'd come up with some interesting ideas for how to move forward.