Digital literacy: the perks and pitfalls of plugged-in students

Researchers using student data in learning analytics cannot ignore ethical concerns. Plus the latest higher education appointments

March 26, 2015

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Crossed wires: analysis of students’ personal data raises privacy concerns

The increasing number of digitally literate students, with constant access to the internet via their own handheld devices, can cause problems for lecturers – but they also offer scholars the opportunity to undertake new and exciting research methods.

This is according to Christopher Jones, professor of research in educational technology at Liverpool John Moores University, who next month will address the issue at the Methodology and Ethics for Researching the Digital University conference, organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education.

Professor Jones told Times Higher Education that developments in the ways students interact with their peers and tutors – increasingly a blend of online and face-to-face discussions – “can present significant difficulties” for lecturers.

“Because students have more or less permanent access to digital networks via smartphones and other handheld devices, they can be engaged or distracted during academic activities in new and unexpected ways,” Professor Jones said. This can “threaten or disrupt established academic practices built up over years”, he added.

Professor Jones said the challenges were not just an issue for individual academics.

Universities should also consider the fact that students these days are interacting with staff in a range of ways, and that students’ lives and learning are increasingly intertwined with a mix of the physical and the digital.

“Wireless access is almost a given across university estates,” Professor Jones continued. “Increasingly, students want to access all university systems via their own devices, and this presents a set of challenges to university managers. The digital systems that a university deploys gather data continuously, and university managers are increasingly interested in data analytics to manage their relationships with students and, potentially, with staff.”

Use of such analytics offers institutions the potential to trace student activities and to predict certain events, such as the possibility that a student might drop out, but they also present “a challenge in data storage”, he said, continuing: “Many universities are opting to outsource data storage to cloud computing services, which raises a number of practical and ethical issues.”

Such ethical issues are brought to the fore when considering that researchers themselves are increasingly able to use techniques to exploit data from students and the general population.

“The spread of digital networks accessed on a variety of devices moves the object of research from the ‘field’ to the internet, and devices that access the internet,” Professor Jones explained.

“In the past, researchers could go to the location of the subject of research to observe and interview them. Now the subject of research can access the network from many devices and numerous locations,” he said.

One technique that researchers may consider using involves “logging software”, which can record the digital activity of a research subject. This approach, which offers academics the possibility of “taking a snapshot of activity” across multiple devices, could be very effective, but faces “ethical barriers”, Professor Jones said.

Some of these barriers are bound to include privacy concerns.

Earlier this year, the Open University became the first UK institution to produce a publicly available written policy on the ethical use of student data for learning analytics, after research found that many students were unaware of how their personal information was being used.


Robert Gordon University has announced the appointment of three external governors to its board. The new governors are Hugh Little, head of acquisitions at Aberdeen Asset Management, Sylvia Halkerston, former human resources director of Macphie of Glenbervie, and former NHS executive director Hamish Wilson.

Anna Sapir Abulafia, director of studies in history at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, has been appointed to the professorship of the study of the Abrahamic religions in the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Theology and Religion from 1 April.

Philip Booth has been appointed professor of finance, public policy and ethics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. Professor Booth takes up his role in May and will remain editorial and programme director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, his current role.

Tracy Palmer, professor of molecular microbiology and head of the division of molecular microbiology at the University of Dundee, has been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.

Leeds Beckett University has appointed Deveral Capps as the head of its law school. Mr Capps joins from Northumbria University’s law school, where he was director of international development and recruitment.

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