Monetize the Data :-(

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monetizeYuck. I really don’t like that phrase. I get it…especially in certain cases. Facebook gives users access to a free and (somewhat) valuable tool, so they have every right to use the data as they see fit (within ethical limits, of course). Where there is a reasonable expectation set between the user and the company about who does what with the data, there are definitely cases where companies can “monetize the data”. But in educational technology? Nope. I think that’s where companies really start to skirt the line.

I’ve got a fair bit of involvement in the ed tech space. I’ve started my own analytics company, I network and partner with many technology companies, and I have advised other ed tech businesses. What I don’t see is a model where monetizing student data is a good/viable/profitable idea.

Here are the innate problems with making money off of student data:

  1. They are students
    The whole reason they are interacting with you is because they are trying to learn…to better themselves. That’s the contract they’ve entered into with their institution. When a company looks at student data as an asset, it becomes a contingent relationship. Sure, we’ll help you learn <subject>, but in order for us to do that, we need something of value from you. That just doesn’t pass the sniff test with me
  2. They are paying you
    There’s already a commercial relationship going on here. It’s likely transitive — the student is paying their institution and the institution is paying the ed tech company. When the ed tech company tries to monetize the data, they are trying to make money on both ends. That can be either a poor business model, greedy, or another option is that…
  3. It’s probably illegal
    I’m not a huge fan of regulation, but as a business, we need to be aware of what’s out there. Something like FERPA was put into place for a reason and those are the rules we need to play by. Can the ed tech company use student data to better the student’s academic experience? Yes. Can the ed tech company use the student data for profitability reasons that don’t directly impact the student? Probably not. There’s absolutely some grey area here, but if your business model requires certain “loose” interpretations of FERPA, then you’re probably on the wrong side if the field.

I’ll admit that I’m naive. I’m sure there are examples of successful educational business models that are predicated on the monetization of student data. I just don’t think that’s a viable strategy in general. I look at something like Unizin where institutions are trying to constructively partner with ed tech companies and I think that’s a good model. Having worked at both an educational institution and at an ed tech company, I can say that there is a lot of common alignment. Both entities (for the most part), want to help students succeed. Let’s hope we see more of this kind of alignment and collaboration in the future.

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