Thursday, February 20, 2014

Big Data and the Rights of Students

In December 2013, the Times Higher Education website in Great Britain published an article about the use of big data in higher education. 

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute, was interviewed on the eve of the Online Educa Berlin conference about the increasing use of “big data” by higher education.  He cautioned against using big data to track students and narrow their choices as they begin their academic careers.  Quoting from the article:

“Until the beginning of the big data age, a student could write in his or her application…an argument outlining why the data might not be complete enough, and might not give a comprehensive prediction,” he said.
“I fear that as we move into the big data age…this argument will not hold much currency any more. Then I worry that the predictions will take over, and schools, universities and college swill not take any risks any more.”

The concern that use of big data will make it harder for students to chart their own educational—and, by extension, professional and societal—futures is important.  Institutions need to make sure that, in the process of trying to optimize student success, they don’t deny students choice.  At the same time, we need to make sure that we honor our other commitments to students.  Some points for discussion:

·      It is important that students know what data is being collected and how it will be used, individually or in aggregate.  Given the ways that big data can be used to guide the student’s experience in the curriculum, it is essential that students be aware of how their actions are being captured and used by the institution. 

·      Institutions need policies regarding how they use data they collect.  For instance, can the data be used to disqualify a student from a direction the student clearly wants to take? 

·      Institutions need to control the use of data.   What is the student's right to privacy in this environment?   For instance, should institutions be able to use student data for purposes other than helping the student succeed?  Should they be able to use it, in aggregate, for recruiting?  Should institutions be able to sell data or use it to promote non-academic products and services to students?  If a third-party is used to collect information, what use, if any, can the third party make of the data? 

·      Who, besides an individual faculty member, should have access to student data gathered during a course?  Historically, universities have protected communications in a course.  Should institutions that collect student data in courses be able to share that data—individually or in aggregate—with other faculty, with advisors and other student services professionals, or with third parties (parents, potential employers, etc.)?

·      At the recent UPCEA/ACE conference on online learning, one presenter described how big data was being used within courses to track how students use online content.  The presenter described a case in which the course allowed students to request a “hint” when they were having difficulty with a problem.  She noted that one student always used the “hint” as a first resort, which raised the question of whether the student was actually learning the course content.  This raises two broad ethical questions:  (1) In cases like this, should students be made aware of how over-use of a feature like hints will be seen by the instructor and encouraged to use the feature sparingly? and (2) If help is provided, should using that help be seen by faculty as a sign of weakness on the part of the student?  It is an area that calls out for new rules and better communication about expectations.

Clearly, big data has great potential to help institutions better understand their students and, potentially, to help them guide students to success.  However, for this benefit to be fully realized, institutions—and individual faculty—need to integrate the collection and use of this data into its culture and into the relationships that exist with students at the course level, the program level, and the institutional level.  At the process, institutions must ensure that students are made aware of and are empowered by the data that the institution is collecting.