A ‘flourishing’ use of data in schools – we know what needs to be done … but not how to do it!

Hintz et al. (2019) set out a fairly comprehensive framework of what might be required to support forms of engagement with digital data that are more equitable, just and individually empowering. So, even before we start our research into the use of data within schools, we already have a good idea of the types of changes and improvements that we should be aiming for. The far more difficult question, however, is how we might be able to achieve these changes and improvements.

In brief, Hintz and colleagues lay out four main areas of change required to facilitate individuals’ self-determined and ‘just’ engagement with data – what they describe as ‘flourishing’ in a datafied society:


#1. Accessible, stable and trustworthy infrastructure

Data infrastructure is an easily overlooked but foundational element of any person’s data use. In Hintz’s terms, a school’s data infrastructure will include the ‘physical infrastructure’ of wires and devices, alongside the ‘logical infrastructure’ of standards and protocols that regulate data flows through the hardware. These infrastructures are accompanied by the platforms and applications that allow us to produce and exchange content. There are a number of improvements that might be considered in terms of these infrastructures. These include the design and construction of physical and coded artefacts to facilitate user rights, alongside a plurality of provision – i.e. the provision of a variety of platforms and applications to facilitate different channels of engagement and to address the different needs/circumstances of different user groups.

Thus, in the context of improving schools as sites of data use, it is important to pay attention to the ways in which schools’ data infrastructures might be made more accessible, stable and/or trustworthy. For example, can alternate/mirror platforms and interfaces be developed that broaden students’ access to school data? Can in-school sensors be made more visible, so that students and teachers are reminded of the ways in which data is being collected on them? Can rights and permissions be reset – for example, making data surveillance an opt-in rather than opt-out option?


#2. A supportive legal and regulatory framework for protecting users’ rights

Every individual’s’ engagement with data is shaped by a range of regulatory influences. These include national law, regional policies, transnational rule-making, as well as local (school) rules, regulations and norms. For example, data practices in European schools will have changed subtly but significantly in light of the GDPR. Crucially, then, we need to think about the regulations that exist in relation to data use in schools (and how they might need to be altered), as well as the problems that might result from the lack/absence of regulation. Issues to consider here include issues of freedom of expression, privacy, limitations on the collection, analysis and reuse of personal data. We also need to consider how schools’ data uses might cross national jurisdictions – for example using US-based platforms while being party to Australian legislations.

Thus, in terms of our project this raises a couple of different lines of action. First, is considering the ways in which schools (and other education stakeholders) might lobby different regulatory bodies. Second, is the ways in which educational organisations might themselves be able to develop and enact new forms of regulation (e.g. individual school policies).


#3. Adequate public knowledge

 Clearly, the effectiveness of any changes in data infrastructure and data regulation is dependent on sufficient public knowledge and understanding of a digital data. A third key aspect for Hintz and colleagues is what they describe as “public knowledge and understanding of the technology, its workings and the regulation and rights afforded to individuals”. In terms of general public engagement with data issues, Hintz gives the example of the continued importance of the ‘watchdog function’ journalism – as evident in recent reportage from likes of the Guardian relating to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, citizen journalism initiatives such as ProPublica’s ‘Breaking the Black Box’ campaign, and the establishment of dedicated outputs such as The Markup. Also important are the activities of activist organisations (such as Electronic Frontiers and Digital Rights Watch), and other informed stakeholders.

In the context of schools, then, this raises a number of possible avenues. For example, how might these general information channels be brought into in-school conversations (e.g. as part of a school’s media education provision or their parental engagement activities)? What education-specific equivalents might there be (for example, such as activist groups such as Project Unicorn and FERPA|Sherpa aiming to increase school understanding of data privacy and operability issues). Finally, what local ‘activist’ groups might be supported within schools – for example, student councils, school newspapers and so on?


#4. Active users with an informed and knowledgeable understanding of the technologies in place and how they might be used.

 The final element of Hintz’s framework relates to our ultimate goal of supporting individuals’ to be able to engage with data within their schools in an informed and empowered manner. This is described as users who are “well-aware of the opportunities and risks of engaging with digital environments, and knowing how to claim and protect their rights” (Hintz et al. 2019, p.40-41).

There a few points here that we need to consider in the context of school data practices. For example, the idea of being an ‘active user’ is framed by one’s other in-school roles – such as student, teacher or administrator. So too, are likely ‘risks’ of using school data in what might be considered an empowered fashion – for example, a probationary teacher will be less able to take risks in what they do as compared to a well-established senior member of staff. In addition, it is important that this self-awareness extends beyond individual issues to consider collective implications. For example, as well as being aware of how one’s use of data technologies results in consequences for oneself, students/teachers need to be aware of how their own use of data technologies results in consequences for others – such as classmates, colleagues or people outside the school setting.


All told, Hintz and colleagues offer a useful framework for making sense of what we might be looking for during our research, as well as what we might be looking to achieve. The hard work will be in translating these levels of concern into meaningful and useful changes. Despite this road-map, there is a long way to go!


[notes from Hintz et al.  2019.   Digital Citizenship in a Datafied Society.]