Balancing learning, innovation and data security in the edtech revolution

Pete Eyre, MD of Vevox, on the importance of correct data handling and how universities can keep student data safe

In January this year, then UK universities minister Chris Skidmore said edtech was a key part of the government’s UK International Education Strategy. In the same speech, he also spoke of his belief that it “can play a fundamental role in increasing the profile of UK education abroad”.

The growing choice of edtech is another important factor driving take-up: from real-time engagement tools to study apps, campus-wide learning management systems and virtual learning environments, the latest edtech services and devices can have a transformative impact, making studying an easier and potentially more immersive experience.

In a digital society and indeed, economy, it’s not only logical but also extremely important to give students access to innovative technology with the potential to engage and enrich. However, in doing so, universities must also consider the full implications of their tech use –especially when it comes to potential security and privacy issues.

Shielding precious data

Many edtech apps are developed by third-party companies and many collect highly sensitive and potentially valuable data, some without the knowledge of the student or institution concerned. When students log in or register via an app, they are often unaware that their personal preferences or discussions are being captured and analysed, which can result in tailored ads being delivered back to them, effectively breaching their privacy.

App and site Ts&Cs are generally accepted by users without reading on the assumption that, if an institution is endorsing their use, they do not present a risk.

The issue is particularly apparent when it comes to free accounts taken out by individual lecturers to act as a teaching aid for students. In these instances, some edtech providers effectively ‘own’ the data being collected, whether that be lecturer data or student data, making it more likely that they can legally use it.

The readiness by lecturers to take out accounts on their own volition is a key part of the potential data security challenge

The security challenge

This readiness by lecturers to take out accounts on their own volition is a key part of the potential data security challenge. In many cases, it will be an easy process – the app is likely to be free initially (making it more attractive), while the fact that the software is typically cloud-based avoids central IT checks.

Rather than impose any draconian policy and deny lecturers the freedom and flexibility to choose the tools they feel would benefit their students most, a balance must be struck with edtech. As a best practice, colleges and universities should consider implementing an institution-wide approach.

Potential checks might include investigation into which providers are safe and which are not – a kind of ‘safe list’ – that lecturers can consult before deciding to take out free accounts. Likewise, universities should test the safety of widely used tools and make recommendations about which are safe and the reasons why. This way, clear guidance can be provided without lecturer choice being restricted. 

A smart approach to edtech

Ultimately, universities’ approach to edtech – whatever its form – should not ever be about stifling innovation but, rather, ensuring that managers, lecturers and students are fully informed.

By their nature, most lecturers are naturally innovative and will want to try the latest apps to progress teaching – something universities should not prevent. Instead, safeguarding guidelines should seek to balance access to tech innovation and fresh learning opportunities with considered data security information, ensuring this experimentation is approached in the safest possible way.

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