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International Data Privacy Day: Best Practices Regarding Children's Learning

New education systems should be designed to both personalize and diversify.

Key points

  • Data privacy is an essential human right in the digital age.
  • We need to rethink how and why we use personal data.
  • Effective and ethical data use is particularly important in personalized education.

On the occasion of International Data Privacy Day, I want to raise awareness about an issue that sets back many well-intentioned practices with data collected from, or for, children. What has been exercising me and colleagues in the past 10 years has been the mammoth task of tinkering with design that balances personalization with privacy. One issue that we constantly run against is that personalized education is unequivocally perceived by teachers, parents, and designers as always desirable.

Learning Engagement Vs. Learning Progress

In the quest to offer children education that is tailored to their needs and progress, very few educators have stopped and asked: Why should we be adopting the learning content in the first place? Why should children receive books that are at their reading level, feedback that is specifically tailored to them, or recommendations for stories that match their interests? The obvious answer is that we make children’s learning more interesting and relevant. We steer their attention to content that we think matters. We make them engaged in learning.

This is all good and positive, but the lure of learning engagement obscures the obvious truth: Engagement does not equate to progress in learning. Yes, it is important to get children focused on a task and draw their attention to a learning goal. But good teachers are far more than attention merchants. They know that the path from paying attention to acquiring knowledge is not a linear one. For learning to stick, learners need to make an effort and find additional layers of meaning in the learning materials.

The Faulty Design of Personalized Education

Commercial design of personalized education uses personal data to concoct an adaptive environment, which adjusts the content to children’s preferred way of learning. Such personalized design reproduces the outdated and tired myth of learning styles.

Moreover, to make the right recommendation, the systems are designed to harvest more and more data. By default, the systems rely on data (and not teachers or parents) as the most reliable source of information about the child. The logic rests on the neoliberal perception of children as effective citizens who constantly produce to contribute data to the digital economy.

Furthermore, the systems are based on the assumption that learning is a simple linear process with questions and answers. Children get rewards for correct answers and punishments for wrong replies. In such a model, children’s learning is optimised to be faster and more efficient over time— as if children were software programs that can be eventually fully automatised.

Future Pointers

Despite the pitfalls of digital personalized learning, many have blindly jumped on the bandwagon. Policymakers pushing for personalized education seemed to have forgotten that personalized learning dates back to personal tutors who offered private tuition to a privileged few. The personal tutors are nowadays being digitized so that they can be offered to all. By digitising an unequal model, we are reproducing the inequality baked into it.

On this International Data Privacy Day, we should be reminded that data privacy should not be the target but the very minimum for ethical use of personal data. The goal should be a culture change in how, where, and why we use personal data. New education systems should be designed to both personalize and diversify. They should avoid the design copied from commercial games and social media platforms that are insidious to the science of learning.


Kucirkova, N. (2021). The Future of the Self: Understanding Personalization in Childhood and Beyond. London: Emerald Group Publishing.