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FERPA, Facebook and The Social Web

As some of you know, I’ve been posting at Michael Feldstein’s blog about our limited beta release this Fall.  The overwhelming sentiment is “This is exciting, but what about FERPA!”

The immediate reaction to the thought of activating a campus-wide Facebook application can make any decision-maker nervous.  Information is shared all over Facebook, and a campus’ interest to keep student data private and secure is not only an obligation but is also upheld by the law.

First, a basic understanding of Facebook Platform is necessary.  Facebook presents applications through a frame and never has the opportunity to cache nor store any data presented within an application.  As of the new redesign pushed by Facebook in July 2008, users have direct control over the “stories” that are generated by applications.  Users also have control of what Facebook users can see what kinds of data, and can even directly block individual users that may find a nuisance.

We store our data with an infrastructure company on the cutting edge of data storage and security.  We can, if requested, create a local installation on a local server behind campus security systems.  However, we’d like our customers to note that innovative hosting companies have extensive expertise regarding large scale, secure hosting with nearly 100% up-time.  Having that kind of performance locally is nearly impossible.

At Inigral, we’ve worked with our pilot school and our lawyers to assure that all features of our application are FERPA compliant and uphold the strongest standards of security and privacy.  I don’t want to go into the exact feature set that makes it such a comfortable thing for institutional adoption, but it is proof that venturing into the wide world of the Social Web is highly possible with a little care.

However, the institution is not completely hands-off in this regard.  At most campuses, the administration will have already asked the student to sign an agreement to share data with third parties acting in concert with the mission of the institution.  With near certainty, we will be covered under such agreement.  If the institution does not have such broad language in place but has policies that treat enrollment data as “directory information,” we will be covered so long as students are notified and allowed to “opt-out.”  If enrollment data is not treated as “directory information,” the students should be asked for their consent by an “opt-in” email.

FERPA is in place to make sure that institutions are careful with and respectful of a students right to privacy, but it was not intended to hold back education in the 1990s before there were things like APIs and the Social Web.  No school has ever lost Federal funds because of FERPA, which is the only punishment that can occur for being in violation (besides being tied up in a lawsuit).  Privacy, Security, and personal Control over information is more than a valid concern, but lets not let it be a brick wall of anxiety in the face of the march towards user-friendly, interoperable, and multitudious educational solutions!

Education 3.0 (What Web 3.0 means for Education)

For those not privy to internet futurism, Web 3.0 is a term encompassing fledgling developments in the internet that will most likely become mainstream trends over the next decade or so; the gist is that web applications will be able to greet you as if they know you and go get information for you they don’t already have by cooperatively sharing or intelligently finding data; the components include the Semantic Web, web Operating Systems, mobile and geographic integration, and heavy identity-based services coupled with data and identity portability.  If I missed anything for internet gurus, comment below.  The impact on education that I am betting on are primarily threefold.

1) Interoperability and Data (liberation) Portability:  Course data such as title, time, credits, instructors, etc, and personal data such as education history, learning preferences, instructional modifications, etc, will become transferable across applications and software.  This will increase the number of services that schools can provide with marginal additional expense, as well as the services’ ability to integrate with each other to cooperate to provide a cross-platform, integrated learning environment.

2) Identity-based Services:  Services can take that data and cooperate to create distributed, adaptive learning environments and learning management systems, as well as give information to instructors that can help them scale data-driven, adaptive instruction.  These services will seemingly take anonymity out of computer services and personalize learning.

3) Mobile device Integration: Services will be integrated across devices, with particular emphasis on mobile offerings that fill a void in both frequent off-site, low-commitment interactions, as well as synchronous solutions for in-class instructional support tools.

A little background.  I give the Semantic and Data Operability aspect of Web 3.0 considerable thought as I build Standardissimo, a standards-based content publishing, discovery, planning, formative assessment and data analytics tool still in private alpha.  (Comment if you’d like to be included in the alpha).  We’ve been grappling with the inconsistencies of the data model for state standards and the lack of anything close to a Resource Description Framework across states and subjects.  States don’t even try to tag their HTML so that you can easily do something with the data.  They treat it like text, obliviously creating barriers for people trying to improve education through technology!   I just found Academic Benchmarks, a company that solves this problem by affordably offering national database with an abstracted data model and publishing standards in XML to subscribers potentially in all 50 states for all subject areas.  Life saver.  Check them out if you’re looking to create solutions around state standards.

At Inigral, our biggest challenges have been getting hold of and using data sets that should, from a pragmatic perspective, be public and easily integrated into web services; particularly course and enrollment data.  IMS Global and SIF are the organizations devoted to developing data, metadata, and data transfer standards to increase the interoperability of software systems for education; and I’ve found the movements they represent particularly inspiring even if the development of these universal standards are bureaucratic, boring, and mindnumbingly complicated.  (Thanks to Jason Wrage for trying to make sense of SIF on his blog.)

For the instructional version of Education 3.0, Derek Keats seems to have given it a bit of thought here.

If you work in education or educational technology, think about how you can help position your organization to take advantage of and contribute to moving toward Education 3.0….  Namaste.