The proliferating educational technology (EdTech) sector continues to gather attention due to its accumulation of copious amounts of sensitive data about children. How this data is used has influential power that impacts children’s privacy and fundamental rights. Many EdTech platforms, such as Thrively and Illuminate, not only collect sensitive data about how students feel, their whereabouts, and academic performance but can also make inferences and predictions about children with little understanding of how they do that. Additionally, ransomware attacks have increased and, with that – further risk of harm to children. Digitising fundamental societal pillars such as education has deep moral, societal, economic, and political implications and requires greater scrutiny over those who fund EdTech and ultimately influence children’s education and futures. While tougher data protection regulations in Europe and Southeast Asia require more from the EdTech sector around ethical data practices, such requirements should extend to EdTech investors – an overlooked stakeholder in education. But what should investors demand from their portfolio EdTech companies as ethical data practices? The Open Data framework and principles have the answer.
There is little public understanding of how investors fund an EdTech. Do they prioritise ethical practices and evidence, or are they driven primarily by profit? How do investors ensure their portfolio companies follow regulatory frameworks for data management, security, and privacy? These questions seem far off from EdTech investment, but in reality, digitising education is messy, and these questions become crucial for building a sustainable EdTech ecosystem. For example, EdTechs have been caught exploiting children’s data, while schools remain inadequate in product procurement due to a lack of clear quality benchmarks. The hand that feeds the EdTech sector – investors – is, therefore, an important stakeholder whose ethos and decision-making can benefit by integrating Open Data principles.
Open data is digital data, technically and legally equipped to be accessed, shared, and reused by anyone, anywhere, at any time. The promises of open data for the commercial sector aren’t new. A decade ago, US President Barack Obama suggested that open data is “going to help launch more start-ups…products and services that we haven’t even imagined yet”. That same year, McKinsey & Company reported that an estimated $3 trillion annual economic potential could emerge from open data.
Despite the positive promises, the implementation of open data has been rooted more in academia and sciences than industry. However, this is changing. Open data’s goal is to promote the quality, efficiency, and responsiveness of data. Under the EU’s Open Science Policy, data should be findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable, or FAIR. The FAIR principles help guide the rationale for collecting specific data, to the way it is used, for ensuring that data management is ethical, transparent, and trustworthy. The maxim of open data is for data to be “as open as possible and as closed as necessary”. Put otherwise; data should be “open” to facilitate usability/reusability for transparency while “closed” to safeguard individuals’ fundamental rights. Hence, value-driven and impact-conscious investors should demand a commitment to data responsibility as part of their investment process.
Open data may appear contradictory to commercial interests initially. Yet, the core of open data is to drive scientific progress and achieve humanitarian values. Following the FAIR principles, data use can enable various opportunities in education. Data collected from a school’s electricity consumption, combined with classroom data such as class size, length of lessons, and geographic location, can help schools identify possible energy waste and build measures to reduce it – what Energy Sparks, a start-up, does. Different economic sectors have started adopting government and non-government (e.g., data.gov.uk and data.gov) open data to explore market gaps. The World Bank’s Open Data Initiative provides open access to diverse data, allowing researchers and entrepreneurs to develop new tools to address global challenges, including in education. Google’s own Google Maps and Google Earth have relied on open data sources to develop detailed maps and satellite imagery.
Research funding entities (e.g., National Science Foundation and UK Research and Innovation) have long been incorporating open data practices in their funding decisions, influencing many companies globally also to share data (e.g., Uber, Google, Twitter) and use open (anonymized) data in their innovation strategies (e.g., Cisco and Accenture). However, the true value, besides business growth, is to innovate while creating positive social and economic impact. Hence, open data and commercialisation can be envisioned as complementary in developing a more ethical and impactful investment framework, especially when managing children’s data in education.
Traditionally, investors don’t have full access to quality data about EdTechs’ effectiveness. However, the growing trend of opening (anonymous) education data is providing a wealth of information that is typically treated as proprietary. As more companies begin to embrace open data policies, investors will access more and better information about which products to invest in. As a way forward, there are several ways EdTech investors can implement open data values:
- Integrate FAIR principles in future investment frameworks.
- When evaluating a potential investment opportunity, actively ask questions about how early-stage start-ups are producing and using data to identify and prevent potential ill practices or misuse of children’s data.
- Require evidence around data responsibilities, data management plans, and implemented cybersecurity standards.
- Consider the latest country-specific regulations for open data programs (each country may encourage different levels of data to be open).
- Using education data based on ‘legitimate interests’ is not enough; investors and EdTech companies must identify how data-driven decision-making can impact children’s lives. To understand the impact, it is crucial that both EdTech companies and investors build relations with the education community to build trust.
Open data can facilitate knowledge transfer while enhancing transparency and responsibility, which supports creating a more ethical and sustainable future for the EdTech sector.