Digital Futures Commission: Education Data Reality

Jonathan Smith

Jonathan attended the online launch of the Digital Futures Commission report on the reality of education data.

Professor Sonia Livingstone introduced the goals of the Digital Futures Commission, and the recent report, seeking to develop rights respecting digital products, and to re-imagine a world built for children by design.

Sonia outlined how, although schools have always collected data about children, the ‘Education Data Reality’ report responds to the expontential growth of data capture now taking place, underpinned by education technologies (edtech). However, children and parents generally have very little choice about data collection, and schools are left with difficult choices on how to balance interests without much support. Big claims are made for the benefits of edtech, but the evidence to support those claims is not always provided. The situation can feel like a David and Golliath struggle - as 30,000 individual schools each negotiate contracts with large edtech companies.

We then heard from Sarah Turner, lead author of the report, asking how can schools harness the benefits of tech whilst mitigating the risks. Sarah reported how there is a sense that schools are overwhelmed, operating massive complex and fractured system with lots of different providers, loads of systems, and loads of data collected in loads of different ways. While staff might identify immediate safeguarding issues with data systems, wider risks are rarely on their radar. As schools are pressured, only the most pressing data protection or safeguarding issues get attention. At the same time, much of the data that is being collected is going underused.

This was followed by a report from Al Kingsley, CEO of edtech company NetSupport, and Chair of a Multi-Academy Trust. Al outlined how data and technology became even more significant issues for education during the pandemic: with funding supporting adoption of new technologies, but big questions remaining around pedagogy, privacy and evidence of impact. Schools face a big challenge to scrutinise new technology as it comes in across all areas, and it can be very hard to perform robust data protection risk analysis.

During the Q&A, there was a lot of exploration of issues of technology co-creation and involvement, exploring how parents, children, teachers, senior management teams or governors could have involvement in both design of technologies, and the policies around, and governance of, data. Discussions explored that while some edtech firms may adopt user-centred design models, not all do, and there is a lot of diversity between schools in terms of both their capability and needs.

As we explore education as one of our thematic areas for Connected by Data, we’ll be digging more into the full report which provides a valuable evidence base on how schools currently experience data technologies.