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It’s time to talk about privacy

Image by Fotolia
Image by Fotolia

The digital revolution promises to personalise education across the African continent. But as innovative eLearning companies begin collecting more and more data about students, some have voiced concerns about privacy.

By Steven Blum

This past month, a bill was introduced in the US that would place limits on how education technology companies can use the information they collect on students. Called the Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act, the bill would prohibit these companies from sharing any student information with advertisers.

Even President Obama has stepped into the eLearning privacy debate, announcing in a January speech a proposal for a new student digital privacy law.

“We’re saying that data collected on students in the classroom should only be used for educational purposes,” Mr Obama said.

At the heart of the debate is the question of which information can be appropriately collected, who has the right to see the information, how long it can be held and how errors and inaccuracies are to be collected.

Even anonymised meta-data (or massive amounts of data that don’t link specific information and individuals) is valuable to marketers interested in selling their products and services to students and families, according to a report by the National Education Policy Center.

Of course, it isn’t just eLearning companies who collect this type of information: telcoms and apps do, too. (Remember: if the app is free, you are the product they’re selling).

That said, it is important to protect the privacy rights of students, most of whom do not have a choice in the type of learning platform used by their teacher. As Africa becomes more and more connected, these type of privacy concerns are likely to grow.

At eLearning Africa 2015, Sarah Kiden, from Uganda Christian University, will explore the topic of privacy and safety online in a fishbowl discussion format. “What comes first: learning or safety? Should the community also participate in online safety?” are a few of the questions she hopes to answer. Kiden says, these are issues that need to start being addressed at home.

“In most cases, parents are the first line of training that children get. It is important for them to be aware about issues related to online safety and privacy so that they can contribute to the campaign about safety online.”

For those educators looking to integrate eLearning platforms into their classroom, it’s important to read the platform’s terms of service to ensure they adequately protect students. Also check to see if the company has signed a pledge to protect student privacy. Currently, 133 companies have made the pledge.

eLearning Africa will be taking place on May 20 – 22, 2015, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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