NSA Lags Behind Knewton in Collecting Data on Children?

Remember how the government is all upset about Edward Snowden releasing information about them spying on the public? Well it turns out that this story line is a little more complicated. Since this is an education blog I will not divert into the Snowden stuff too far but, it has come to my attention that whatever the NSA is doing, it may be far less than some others.


What? Yes, the first thing pointed out to me was that Google had invented, long ago, a system to data mine your email. This incursion into your mail analyzes it for the meaning you are making and connects that analysis with sellers who want to advertise. For example, let’s say you want to play golf, you email a friend and up pops an advertisement to the right of your email, and it also is about golf. Remember how we all thought it would be too much data for the NSA to analyze in real time? Well, Google can do it now as you write your email.


Politico has just reported that the Ed Tech Data Mining companies are the ones to watch. These companies have suddenly (over the past few years) gained permission, and accessed lots of data points from school districts that normally freak out if their children’s data is not carefully protected.

“The NSA has nothing on the ed tech startup known as Knewton.


“The data analytics firm has peered into the brains of more than 4 million students across the country. By monitoring every mouse click, every keystroke, every split-second hesitation as children work through digital textbooks, Knewton is able to find out not just what individual kids know, but how they think. It can tell who has trouble focusing on science before lunch — and who will struggle with fractions next Thursday.


“The amount of data being collected is staggering. Ed tech companies of all sizes, from basement startups to global conglomerates, have jumped into the game. The most adept are scooping up as many as 10 million unique data points on each child, each day. That’s orders of magnitude more data than Netflix or Facebook or even Google collect on their users.”

Read more:


So Congress needs to unfocus on Snowden, or absorb the lessons of Snowden, and refocus on what it means to have privacy. Or perhaps they already did this and the answer is, if money can be made, privacy is out:

“Even as Congress moves to rein in the National Security Agency, private-sector data mining has galloped forward — perhaps nowhere faster than in education. Both Republicans and Democrats have embraced the practice. And the Obama administration has encouraged it, even relaxing federal privacy law to allow school districts to share student data more widely.”

Read more:

So, where do we go from here? Is there such a thing as privacy? I think that the data mining dam has broken. I don’t really know, but if anything like the above information is at all true, the ability for new kinds of analysis, about the human condition, may be both an opportunity for data miners and a real concern for the rest of us.

report by McKinsey & Co. last year found that expanding the use of data in K-12 schools and colleges could drive at least $300 billion a year in added economic growth in the U.S. by improving instruction and making education more efficient.

Read more:

The concern is that your child’s data is being used to sell something to someone. And why can’t we have the conversation that what this data really represents is a chance for us to know more about our children and for our children to know more about how they think, what they do, and how they respond to prompts. This really sounds like a testing issue, doesn’t it? Or a personal learning issue? And/or an issue of incursion into who you are, as this kind of data has not been examined for it’s best use. What should we be doing with this data? Selling it? Buying it? Using it to sell to others? Or, using it to benefit the human from who it was collected?

Too many questions! What do you think?

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More from EdSpeak

Discover the tools and strategies modern schools need to help their students grow.

Community Schools Reform

As a seasoned researcher of K-12 public schools and someone dedicated to improving the quality, equity, and creativity in education, I wholeheartedly support the proposal

Read More »

Subscribe to EdSpeak!

The SchoolWorks Lab Blog, connecting teaching to policy through research.