UK universities are monitoring students’ information to help them to improve their academic performance but are giving insufficient thought to the effectiveness of the technology they use and the rights of those they track.
This is according to Sharon Slade, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Business, Management and Law at The Open University, which is believed to have become the first institution in the UK to produce a publicly available written policy on the ethical use of student data for learning analytics – the practice of collecting and analysing student data with the intention of optimising their educational experience.
According to Dr Slade, although there is often an inherent assumption that knowing more about a learner’s behaviour and using it to tailor support is advantageous, the collection of such data raises a number of ethical challenges.
“People are getting carried away by the momentum of the developments in this area,” she told Times Higher Education.
“[Software] developers are extremely enthusiastic about what data can deliver, but none of them is really questioning the concerns – things like the privacy of students or the accuracy of the algorithms used,” she continued.
Poor technology, she said, could “put labels on students” based entirely on the available information, which risked incorrectly stereotyping learners.
During the development of the policy on the ethical use of student data, Dr Slade carried out a three-week consultation with about 60 students to find out what they knew about the use of learning analytics.
The majority, she said, were not aware that the university had both the ability to collect and analyse information about how they studied and was already doing so. Many students said that they did not like the idea that analyses could be applied to them as individuals, describing it as “snooping”, while others were more relaxed about the practice.
“On the one hand, students don’t like being snooped on, but on the other hand they complained when they received generic emails that were not relevant to them,” Dr Slade said. “They wanted to know why their university didn’t appear to know who they were.”
She said she hoped that the new policy would begin a debate in higher education about what level of consent is required from students before universities can use their data.
The current “standard”, she said, was that universities used data, and no choice to “opt out” was offered to students.
“We have been using learning analytics for a year or more,” Dr Slade said, adding that a process of “informed consent” was in place, whereby students were deemed to have consented to the use of their data when they registered at the university.
“This policy doesn’t change that, but we are now making students aware of that practice in a way which other universities are not.”
Dr Slade said that although the use of learning analytics could be hugely beneficial to students, she wanted them to know that The Open University was listening to their concerns and was aware of the issues surrounding the use of such data.