Extensive amounts of data collected about students in school time

How to recognise an attack of the zombie (data)

​​The authors are presenting their research on recognising ‘Zombie Data’ across its lifecycle in education systems at the AARE conference today PPIE SIG 3 Concurrent Session 5

“We collect it [the data] all throughout the year and I’ve never actually seen what happens with it. Where does it go and what is it used for?” (Primary Teacher)

We inhabit a world infiltrated by zombie data. Check your phone – contact details of forgotten people, games you have long stopped playing (although impressive high score!), photos of places you don’t remember, and downloaded TikToks you will never watch again. These data, gathered with little or forgotten purpose, that are no longer relevant to current lives exist as zombie data. In our education systems, zombie data devour time, space and energy. 

We seek to provide recognition of how such data are generated and the consequences of their existence. Vast amounts of data are created in classrooms and schools, retained in physical and virtual files. Individual’s digitalised data becomes part of the representation of populations and even when anonymised their datafied doppelgangers continue to walk in the world informing policy, practices and propaganda.

Defining Zombie data

We found excessive, purposeless and redundant data – ‘zombie data’. Those in the technology, economics, business, and “regtech” fields indicate an awareness that zombie data, while considered dead, ‘lurks around…waiting to be called to life again” (Datastreams, 2017). Such data has also been referred to as “huge waves of numbers without meaning or relevance” (Balleny, 2013) that create datasets “without any purpose or clear use case in mind” (Kaufmann, 2014 in D‘Ignazio & Klein, 2020).  

Zombie data reside in school systems, lurking in the infrastructures used to manage student and school data. These data are called to life and used as evidence to inform practices and policy beyond their original purpose. Study A found that policies enacted in classrooms are informed by, and result in, the production of data by students. Many of these data are deidentified, stripped of context and become publicly available on government open data sites, as reported in Study B. They remain disconnected from their previous lives ready to walk through the world at the drop of a politician’s bright idea or reporter’s query. Zombie data are seldom recognised, and we offer this warning to all, to consider the role we have in creating and maintaining such beings. 

While we were expecting zombie data to be situational, that is situated within the specific conditions of particular sites within an education system, we heard the same concerns raised across the panoramic view of our combined studies.

How do you recognise Zombie data?

The first criteria of zombie data is excessiveness. When it came to the collection of data in classrooms, a secondary student commented, “Make less… don’t try and get any extra information if you don’t need it.” A classroom teacher said, “data for data’s sake is what is killing education and killing the learning process.” A school leader reflected this view when they acknowledged that, “I have collected data this year that was a complete waste of my time and everyone else’s.” Senior bureaucrats also recognised the problem of excessive data, “What do you do with all that data, that ever-growing amount of information and pattern recognition processes, and how do you serve that up and consume that as a principal with reducing limited amounts of free time – how do you consume that?” At every level, from student through to bureaucrat, excessive data was both recognised and refuted. As an identifiable form of zombie data, such ‘excess’ carries considerable implications that are vital to consider.  

The second criteria of zombie data is that it is without purpose. Students were frustrated by their participation in the creation of purposeless data. “I was super angry that they were making me do this test for no good reason. There’s no reason for this test, it’s just so the government can keep bragging rights.” Teachers were likewise frustrated, “I already know what they [students] can’t do. I don’t need to keep pre-testing, pre-testing; I know where the kids are at, I know where they’re struggling. So, I purely do them [pre-tests] to tick a box.” Bureaucrats recognised the issue of the misalignment of data and purpose, or lack of purpose, “We are interested in getting all this information and making meaning out of it, generating knowledge – the problems that stand in the way are the quality of the data for that purpose.” The lines of tension in relation to the purpose(less) of data, are indicative of how zombie data manifest across its own lifecycle from classroom through to system contexts.

Redundancy is the third criteria used to identify zombie data in education. Data that may have had an initial function but is no longer of use. It is perhaps the most problematic of zombies, the ongoing “obsessiveness that we have about data” was explained by ‘Roger’, a senior bureaucrat who said that ‘if you torture numbers long enough they’ll confess to anything.” These data are then used for “confirmatory evidence”. As another senior bureaucrat explained, “Another way in using data is that confirmatory evidence scenario where a position is believed to be true or otherwise and then data is found to support that.” Such data may have been made redundant, devoid of its original function and then ‘tortured’ back to life. Once brought back from the dead, zombie data can threaten to haunt those in schools as this school leader expressed, “If the data is not good and it’s released out into the community, then that impact comes back onto our school.”

Combatting zombie data

While we have fun with the term ‘zombie data’ we do so with acknowledgment to the tragic history of the term zombies from 18th Century Haitian slave culture. We draw on the modern evolution archetype ‘zombie’ that developed through Haiti’s folklore and contemporary pop culture.  

We encourage educational practitioners to recognise the problematic creation and use of zombie data across the different stages of data’s life. Data gestate within evidence-informed policies prior to coming into being. The ‘birth’ of data is identified by looking to the actions of those who ‘do’ the assessments, perform behaviours, and arrive at school – identified in study A as the ‘data producers’, that is, the students. Teachers record assessment, behaviour, attendance, and enrolment data, in data infrastructures and by their actions (and those of the technocrats) data become digitalised. Once digitalised, data can lurk, in legislative archives, open data sites and old newspapers – and wait. To combat zombie data, we need to ensure all data are not excessive, they are purposeful, and they are allowed to rest in peace.

Where did we get our data? We determined the moments of data zombification across data’s lifecycle across our two research projects. By doing so, a panoramic view from classrooms to the governing bureaucratic centres of state education in Queensland, Australia, is created. In study A (Rafaan’s), data were gathered from 52 students from across Years Three to Nine in 19 focus group discussions, interviews with 27 teachers, seven school leaders and year-long observations from within a range of participants’ classrooms, professional learning communities (PLCs) and teacher preparation days. These data were then considered in conjunction with the 68 interviews conducted throughout study B (Jennifer’s) with school leaders and senior bureaucrats in Queensland’s state government run, public education system.

Dr Jennifer Clutterbuck is a sessional academic, her educational career spans early childhood classrooms, school leadership and policy roles throughout the public education system in Queensland. Dr Clutterbuck’s research focuses on the inhabitants (human and non-human), and the happenings within the topological spaces created as policy, data and digital infrastructures interact. In 2020, Jennifer received the Grassie and Bassett Prize in Educational Administration from The University of Queensland for her doctoral thesis. Her recent publications focus on the role of data in shaping the lives of those within education. Twitter: @Jenclutterbuck

Rafaan Daliri-Ngametua commenced her career as a middle years classroom teacher, working in both public and private schooling contexts. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the School of Education, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia where she teaches assessment and pedagogy in undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Her research focuses on the nature and effects of the datafication of assessment and learning on student, teacher and school practices. In 2021, Rafaan was the recipient of the Carolyn D Baker memorial research prize as well as the UQ Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty Tutor Award for sustained excellence in teaching. She was also selected as a Global Change Scholar for the UQ Global Change Institute. Twitter: @RafaanDNgametua

Ban smart phones in schools. Not because they’re disruptive but because of this

Largely missing from the ban-phones-in-schools debate are the opinions of important regulatory bodies such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). Although these bodies may seem far removed from the debate, I believe how they view data and data collection should be heard.

Significantly, their views may support a ban of smart phones in schools. Not because of the disruption phones might cause in classrooms, but because of the extensive amounts of data being collected about children and young people as they go about their school day.

Advances in technology, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), are partially enabled by access to data collected from smart phones. Smart phones are a data collection device. On a global scale, people are largely unaware of the size and extent to which their data is being collected on such devices and subsequently used.

There are associated harms with this data collection and use that have yet to receive sufficient public debate.

The ACCC has recently released their final Digital Platforms Inquiry, which raises important points that I believe should have led the recent debate when Victorian education minister, James Merlino announced a ban of smart phones in Victorian schools.

This report, coupled with a major project on human rights and technology by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Artificial Intelligence: Australia’s Ethics Framework (A Discussion Paper) by the CSIRO, provide a collective warning about the vast amounts of personal data being collected and its implications.

The ban of phones on school will effectively limit the data collected on children by not allowing them to use their personal devices during school hours.  I see this as a much more important outcome, a need for schools. 

Informed consent

The Consumer Policy Research Centre recently published an issues paper highlighting that current technology and technology being developed “can infer everything from personality, health status, and political affiliations, through to even our mood.” (p 16)

Children and young people are unable to give informed consent regarding their data and how it is used. We have recently seen this phenomenon discussed in relation to a viral ‘game’ where people can ‘age’ their photos, through FaceApp. The app’s terms of use give its Russian parent company, Wireless Lab, “a very broad, global and lifelong licence to use the images” it collects from users.

The ACCC suggests that “we are at a critical point in considering the impact of digital platforms on society” and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) states that “new technologies are already radically disrupting our social, governmental and economic systems”.

Parents are often dependent on the professional opinion of the school. The school often refers back to state and federal guidelines. Guidelines are consistently challenged to keep pace with changes in technology. How can young people be expected to give informed consent?

Therefore, any physical barrier to limiting the collection of children and young people’s data at school should be welcomed. It is much easier to police a physical item, than the data it collects, or trying to trace how that data may be used.

The potential for harm is almost impossible to understand

There has been significant research into the harms associated with data. Many people critically investigating digital and commercial platforms, are now calling for greater ethical debate surrounding commercialization, data use and the use of such technologies. However, understanding the link between data and harm is almost impossible. As Professor in Law and specialist in information privacy at the University of Colorado, Paul Ohm states

We are embarking on the age of the impossible-to-understand reason, when marketers will know which style of shoe to advertise to us online based on the type of fruit we most often eat for breakfast, or when the police know which group in a public park is most likely to do mischief based on the way they do their hair or how far from one another they walk.

Data collected from smart phones can be aggregated and used in other contexts. Harms have been shown to be associated with politics and data driven marketing campaigns, predictive policing and decisions made in the judiciary. Such topics have also been mentioned by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) in their report on The Effective and Ethical development of Artificial Intelligence.

Ignorance is no excuse

It could be argued that schools cannot be expected to know the harms associated with data collection via smart phones, as society at large is unaware.

The Artificial Intelligence: Australia’s Ethics Framework (A Discussion Paper) states

Australians are largely unaware of the scale and degree to which their data is being collected, sold, shared, collated and used.

However, someone may well have to take responsibility in the future for allowing such vast amounts of personal data to be collected and arguably monetized during school hours. Should that happen, a lack of awareness or understanding may not be a valid excuse.

There is an increasing coverage of the potential for harm through various forms of media. We have already had such discussions right here on the AARE blog with Vast amounts of data about our children are being harvested and stored via apps used by schools, and just recently Education shaped by big data and Silicon Valley. Is this what we want for Australia? Ignorance is no excuse.

This idea is supported by the CSIRO in its paper titled, Artificial Intelligence: Australia’s Ethics Framework (A Discussion Paper). It clearly states that ignorance is “unlikely” to be accepted as a defense

Know the trade-offs in the system you are using. Make active choices about them that could be justified in the court of public opinion. If a poorly-designed AI system causes harm to the public, ignorance is unlikely to be an acceptable defense.

Banning phones does not mean removing technology

I am not arguing for the removal of technology from schools. What I am arguing for is the removal of personal devices where other personal and social harms will not occur as a result of their removal. I stress that the individual context must be considered.

By evaluating risks and minimizing harms holistically, schools could limit the use of personal data collection devices (smart phones) during school hours, without discounting individual needs.

What does the ACCC say about data collection?

Teachers can help young people navigate digital platforms and I support calls for increased data infrastructure literacies, digital literacies and media literacies in K-12 settings. But navigating the data once it is de identified and aggregated for other contexts, is like trying to teach young people how to navigate an unknown space, with unknown tools for unknown outcomes.

This may be why the ACCC recommends significant amendments to the Privacy Act.

The ACCC produced the Digital Platform report to explore potentially adverse implications, including the impact of platforms on consumers in relation to their information.

Their findings show that Google and Facebook utilize a business model that is dependent on consumer engagement with the platform. Their model collects data in order to sell advertising opportunities. Increased engagement, means increased data. The more data it collects the more revenue it can generate.

But data is not only used for advertising. It is also used to develop other apps and platforms, and further advance developments in AI.

The report highlights that consumers are unable to make informed choices regarding the amount of data that digital platforms collect and how the collected data is used. It also highlights that consumers cannot readily opt out of targeted advertising.

This is occurring at a time, when data regarding how people learn is increasing in commercial value. The global ‘Artificial Intelligence in Education’ market is expected to grow by 40% in the next 5 years. The Asia Pacific region is expected to experience the largest growth.

Commercial innovation in AI, should not come at the expense of informed consent in education.

The ACCC recommends that the Privacy Act provide students (and all consumers) with greater control over their personal information, by calling for greater “protection against misuse of data and empowering consumers to make informed choices” (p. 35). 

Strengthen consent requirements

Only half of the top 50 apps used in Australian Primary Schools in September 2017 highlighted compliance with various approaches to consent. The ACCC suggests failure to get informed consent, needs to be mandated within the Privacy Act. They recommend that data collection is pre-selected to ‘off’ and that the individual must ‘opt in’ should they wish to have their data collected. However, teachers cannot be expected to police personal smart phones.

Part of the larger picture

When considering the ACCC report, schools should also be aware of the Consumer Data Right Bill that is currently making its way through the Australian Parliament. This bill, if it passes, will provide individuals with the right to access data relating to them, as well as to authorize access to their data. The bill will pave the way for Australia’s future data economy.

What schools and school leaders could do

With schools becoming more and more like businesses in Australia, the opinion of regulatory bodies such as the ACCC should matter, as should the opinions of the AHRC and the CSIRO.

I believe schools and school leadership could, as a priority, develop data stewardship strategies and awarenesss campaigns while the associated legislation and policies are being developed. The task of protecting children from harms associated with data collection is challenging.

Banning phones in public schools, at least in part, makes this task easier. 

Janine Aldous Arantes is a PhD student at the University of Newcastle. She is researching how Australian K-12 teachers are negotiating apps and platforms as part of the educational practice. She can be contacted via janine.arantes@uon.edu.au or found on Twitter: @Aldous2018.

Janine uses an avatar as her headshot because when talking about data collection and concerns about the use of metadata, Janine wanted to highlight the normalization and ubiquity of data collection. Using an avatar demonstrates how you can have some control over your data online.