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Privacy Lost

Donald G. Perrin

I recently attended a lecture by David H. Holtzman. He explained in frightening detail how Technology endangers our privacy. He drew attention to the myriad ways personal information is recorded, preserved, used and misused:

It is impossible to walk through this modern world without leaving behind indelible footprints in its silicon sand. Most financial activities for example leave a digital imprint somewhere because a record of every cashless transaction goes into somebody’s database. A whole industry has sprung up around selling and storing personal information about our behaviors and activities. Each bit seem innocuous but in aggregate, this electronic montage provides a frighteningly detailed history of what we do, when and where we do it, and whom we do it with .. . . we are also tracked by our gadgets, such as cell phones (even when they’re off) and Geographic Positioning Systems in our cars . . . Our lives are represented electronically in databases across the world.

The question is whether we are willing to relinquish privacy for benefits these technologies provide. In education we face the same dichotomy, especially in distance learning where students respond online so that every interaction is recorded. Not only is the classroom not private, but automation of record keeping and grade assignment an increasingly used to facilitate academic decision making and planning.

There is a dark side. How viable is this recorded data for future employment, promotion, buying a house, selecting a life partner, or qualification for public office? Yet that is how this data is used. Correlations based on averages are often inappropriate for a specific individual or situation. Poor performance in an early grade can label a student for life; late bloomers fail to be recognized because they bloom late; imperfect testing instruments discriminate against ethnic minorities, disadvantaged communities, and persons with disabilities. Errors and distortions are part of the record and difficult to erase. Often people with unique talents, like Einstein and Winston Churchill, achieve poorly in traditional systems of education.

Why do educators punish students for failure? In human development we know that trial and error – and making mistakes – is an important way to learn. Why do we use old data and old technology to determine the future capability of students? Like medical doctors, we are limited by what we know and the tools available to us. We do make mistakes. We treat symptoms rather than causes. We are biased by our own experience belief systems and training. The power of today’s technology and information systems make outcomes of decisions we make far reaching. We have the power, through our decisions and actions, to change live permanently for better or worse.

Educators are more than gatekeepers or suppliers of knowledge. We are increasingly responsible for communication, social, collaboration, and decision making skills. Once we trained “hands” for industry, now we develop “minds”. As automation replaces basic skills, creative and decision making skills are more important. We are developing the next generation of citizens – employees and leaders – for a world that exists in the future. It is important to involve students in generation of the knowledge and skills they will need in their personal and professional lives.


Holtzman David H (2006). Privacy Lost: How technology is endangering your privacy. Josse Bass.

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