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How teachers can help save children from big data

Teachers are ideally placed to understand and communicate the data protection needs of students, writes Lord Jim Knight

Girl on laptop

Teachers are ideally placed to understand and communicate the data protection needs of students, writes Lord Jim Knight

Damian Hinds calling for a smarter use of technology in schools is hugely welcome. Great teaching can be hugely helped by digital tools that better differentiate pupils and match them to more appropriate teaching. There are many other ways that education technology can help but the safe deployment of technology with children also has challenges.

Children are using digital products, like Google and YouTube, that are not designed for people of a young age. While there are plenty of products designed specifically for children’s education, it is not sensible to believe that more generic products aren’t going to be used by teachers and learners.

That is one of the reasons why the children’s commissioner has produced teachers’ packs to help teach children about young people’s rights online.

The consequences of age-inappropriate design are important, particularly around data. Huge amounts of a child’s activity is captured as data – from education to health and play. Much is highly personal and we are now seeing new data derived from the original data, as algorithms infer attributes. The data is often unconsciously given and generates powerful commercial, political and social tools. 

All of this can give rise to legitimate dystopian fears that could prevent teachers wanting to confidently use more sophisticated artificially intelligent products. 

When the Data Protection Act was taken through Parliament this year, the government gave in to pressure, led by Baroness Beeban Kidron, to introduce an Age Appropriate Design Code. This will set out in law a set of rules that reflects and respects the needs and rights of children.

The code will cover aspects such as default privacy settings, how terms and conditions are presented, use of location services, profiling, data resales, rights to erasure and resolution processes. The code will be governed by the Information Commissioner, who is now consulting on these elements of the code before it is written into law. The consultation closes on 19 September on can be accessed on the ICO website.

Teachers have a professional understanding of children and are therefore important in shaping how data protection works for children. Many may not rush to spend precious time on a data protection consultation, but I hope some will. If these products were in the physical world, being used by teachers and had implications for children’s safety and mental health then I am sure teachers would engage extensively in commenting on what was appropriate. It is a lack of confidence in the digital world that is perhaps turning people off.

Getting child protection right is critically important, and that now extends to data. I hope that the teaching profession gets excited about the power of data to enhance their practice, but also wants to engage with this opportunity to ensure the data is now safely used.

Lord Jim Knight is chief education adviser to Tes Global, the parent company of Tes

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