Reports  |  ,   |  February 19, 2021

Data Ethics in Education and the Social Sector: What Does It Mean and Why Does it Matter?

Report written by Elizabeth Laird and Hannah Quay-de la Vallee. Published by Center for Democracy and Technology. 40 pages.

Executive Summary

Data and technology are playing an increased role in educating and supporting students and their families. This has become even more pronounced as a result of the global pandemic, during which schools are relying on technology to support distance learning and may collect new data about students’ health to provide safe in-person instruction. With this growing reliance on data and technology comes an increased responsibility to ensure not only that data is kept private and secure, but also that new technologies are used only to benefit students, not limit their educational opportunities. To achieve this goal, policymakers and practitioners need to look beyond privacy and security to how data and technology might be misused or have unintended consequences. Responsible planning and clear guardrails can help ensure technology is used to support students and their families. 

A data ethics approach can support the education sector in shaping policies and practices that promote the responsible use of data and technology. Simply put, data ethics is the application of ethics concepts and resources to the specific challenges of responsible data use. However, operationalizing ethical data practices requires further understanding and scoping around two key areas:

  • Supporting fair and equitable use of data and technology to maximize the potential to improve the public good and lives of individuals; and
  • Managing risks that lead to negative impacts on individuals, especially vulnerable populations.

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Finally, there are several key issues that must be addressed to ensure that data is used responsibly and ethically: 

  • Governance and oversight
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Equity and bias
  • Transparency
  • Capacity-building
  • Secondary data use
  • Privacy and security
  • Open data access and research
  • Consent

Although the field of data ethics is still evolving in education, responsible data use is of critical importance for all organizations that seek to utilize data and technology to improve outcomes for students and their families. A particular use of data or technology might be legal, private, and secure, but not in the interest of students and families. Therefore, data ethics is an important framework to support beneficial data and technology uses while minimizing potential harms. This report seeks to provide a working definition of data ethics, explain why it matters for educators and public officials, and explore key topics and practices that need to be addressed to operationalize data ethics principles.