EdNET 2013: Privacy Goes Very Public

column | Movers and Shakers

EdNET 2013: Privacy Goes Very Public

Heard and overheard at one of the education industry's most popular gatherings

By Frank Catalano (Columnist)     Sep 25, 2013

EdNET 2013: Privacy Goes Very Public

If there was a meta-theme at the annual education industry EdNET conference, it was that education is joined at the hip with education technology--and resulting issues that used to be debated mostly among educators, administrators and education industry companies are now not so neatly contained.

The 25th annual EdNET drew roughly 500 execs to Denver, drawn from industry 800-pound gorillas to hopeful startups. EdNET differs from other major education industry conferences in that it’s focused on primarily K-12 and education broadly (not every education market or just education technology), and has a very strong industry focus (with educators or administrators attending generally as speakers).

The themes that cut across two days of sessions?

Privacy is now very public

Data gathering done by education products and processes--and its storage and use to both monitor progress and personalize student instruction--is no longer something education companies can hope district and state administrators alone will explain. Linda Burch, chief education and strategy officer for non-profit Common Sense Media, contended that privacy is a huge issue, and K-12 has had a sort of “carve out” in dealing with the policy issues that it’s time to address head on.

MDR’s Education Research Analyst Anne Wujcik expressed a concern that, by 2016, “data will be caught badly in the privacy wars,” even though it’s essential for teachers to do their jobs. A thread throughout the conference was that “privacy” debates tended to confound three separate, and important, components: privacy (a policy issue), security (a technology issue) and implementation (a human issue). All three are the responsibilities of different players, and all need to be addressed.

As Digital Promise President and CEO (and former head of the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology) Karen Cator said in her keynote, “Data is the rocket fuel that will allow these innovations to take hold.” She also promoted the implementation of a “MyData” button that would allow students to download their own education data, allowing there were “some very interesting implementations” in the works. (But, unfortunately, no indication of plans for a MyData button for the NSA.)

Digital disconnects

While there was no disagreement that the digital train was gathering steam, there was concern the track may not be fully laid.

Cator was optimistic. “The problem with American education is not a lack of excellence...it’s a lack of equity.” To that end, she said digital technology “will have more impact on learning than the printing press.”

But Cator also cautioned about blindly mandating use of technology before the why of its use is known, stating bluntly that she was “not a fan” of statewide requirements requiring online courses for graduation. And she expressed a concern about potential unintended consequences from the push to blended learning, cautioning that it could be “moving us backwards to the (computer) lab down the hall” rather than to “a device in every student’s hand.”

Midian Kurland, Scholastic’s senior vice president of technology and development, expressed concern at the perception that good digital curriculum materials were somehow cheaper and easier to produce than paper textbooks. “Actually, it’s the print (version) that’s cheap,” he noted, because it can be sent to China for printing. The digital one requires coding the interactivity, bug fixes and regular updates.

Peter Cohen, president of McGraw-Hill’s School Education Group, and Mary Cullinane, chief content officer and EVP of corporate affairs for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, both saw the traditional every-several-years education material adoption process in many states as an impediment to digital publishing. One reason? In adoption states that require committee review of all materials, even incremental digital changes have to be approved before content updates can be rolled out.

Cullinane added there’s an overall quandary of not knowing when technology and digital material in schools will fully rule: “The challenge we have for the industry is what will be the timeline to scale.”

Heard and overhead

Of course, there were the quips that may, or may not, come back to haunt the quippers.

Howard Levy, former New York City Schools chancellor and now managing director of Palm Ventures, on his baseline private equity requirement for investing in education companies: “Technology businesses without a pedagogue are suspect.”

Robert Lytle, partner, The Parthenon Group, when caught in panel moderator hell as the device with his notes died: “I just got the Battery Dead message on my iPad...which is what will be happening all over LA Unified next year.”

Cullinane of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, on the ability of states to add to the latest standards in math and literacy: “The ‘common’ of Common Core is a little bit of a fallacy...it’s Kind of Common Core. That should be its new title.”

Chris Minnich, executive director for the Council of Chief State School Officers, on the prevalence and types of testing: Love it or hate it, “I still have yet to see a great school that didn’t have high test scores.”

Finally Scott Hines, chairman and CEO of Hines Global Education, who now would prefer selling to parents, students and teachers (and perhaps channels the frustrations of entrepreneurs everywhere trying to gain a foothold in the K-12 procurement process): “I will never sell (directly) to districts again...They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Frank Catalano is an industry strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He's a regular columnist for the tech news site GeekWire and tweets @FrankCatalano. He discussed trends wearing his analyst hat on the closing Catbird Seat session and admits he had to acknowledge, when making his predictions, that he has also been a science-fiction writer.

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