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Obama Proposes Bill to Protect Student Data, but Not in Higher Education

The abundance of data being collected on students has been celebrated as an opportunity to “personalize” education. But privacy advocates have long warned that digital paper trails might leave today’s students exposed if their personal information fell into the wrong hands.

The White House announced on Monday that it would be taking up the cause of student privacy, pushing legislation that would “prevent companies from selling student data to third parties for purposes unrelated to the educational mission,” according to a news release.

However, the bill, called the Student Digital Privacy Act, would focus on students in elementary and secondary schools, not college students, according to Obama-administration officials.

In a speech at the headquarters of the Federal Trade Commission, President Obama pitched the Student Digital Privacy Act as a measure to keep companies from misusing data collected in the course of providing educational services to schools.

“We’ve already seen some instances where some companies use educational technologies to collect student data for commercial purposes, like targeted advertising,” said Mr. Obama.

New technologies that encourage the collection and analysis of student data increase the risk to privacy, said the president, citing digital textbooks, online tutoring services, and software that helps instructors track student progress in real time.

Those technologies have proliferated in higher education as well, of course, and the possible hazards have not escaped the notice of federal regulators.

Last year the trade commission sent a letter to a New York court overseeing the bankruptcy of ConnectEDU, a company that collected data from high-school and college students in the course of providing services. In that letter, the regulator warned the judge against letting the company sell that information as part of its bankruptcy proceedings without giving students a chance to have it removed.

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the bill drew an “artificial distinction” by focusing on elementary and secondary students, and leaving college students to fend for themselves. “From a privacy perspective, there is really no reason to do that,” said Mr. Nassirian.

A White House official said the scope of the legislation had been influenced by a California law that also focused on elementary and secondary students.

If the Student Digital Privacy Act were to become law—a big if, considering the Republican-controlled Congress—it could still influence higher education. That’s because a lot of data follow students to college, said Michael Abbiatti, executive director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, a nonprofit that supports e-learning collaborations. So much data get “shipped” across that border, said Mr. Abbiatti, that definitions and systems that govern data collection in elementary and secondary schools tend to influence those in higher education.

“The legislation might not mention higher education,” he said. But, if it became law, it would “definitely impact higher education.”

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