Is the sector at risk of snooping on students?

Privacy has been firmly on the agenda over the last few months as the Government’s Investigatory Powers Bill, or ‘Snoopers Charter’ as it has come to be known, passes through Parliament. Among other far reaching powers, the Bill would give intelligence agencies the ability to track all citizen’s web browsing history.

Edward Snowden has likened it to the Government “making a list of every book you have ever opened”. Snowden’s own leaking of secret government programmes aimed at monitoring electronic communications has not only reshaped the global debate about data privacy, but challenged fundamental tenets of democracy and questioned every person’s relationship with the state they live in.

The Bill, and the wider agenda ought to capture the attention of the sector who, armed with newly sophisticated levels of data, are considering new ways it can be used to understand students’ behaviour. The recent Higher Education Commission report stated that half of institutions are exploring how to implement learner analytics and, with similar proportions now using the EvaSys platform to run their module evaluation, we are seeing many institutions also utilising it for other surveys too. This includes programme-level mock NSS-style surveys for year one and year two students.

Where they support good outcomes, these tools can have a lot of merit. But they also contain risks which do not always appear to be on the sector’s radar. I am seeing some institutions openly question the need for anonymity in module evaluation. Perhaps even more worryingly, I’ve heard universities question whether they need to be upfront with students about how their data and opinions are being used by learner technologists.

This has clear legal implications: in order to be compliant with the Data Protection Act, institutions need to tell students what data they are collecting and how it will be used. But it also raises a set of wider ethical, and best practice questions. Is it enough to simply publish a policy on how student data will be used, or should institutions be checking that students really understand it and are aware of any negative implications? And are there particular circumstances in which this should be done?

Practical advances have been made to help the sector in thinking about how to obtain informed consent including by Jisc, who have developed a code of practice and Dr Bart Rienties, Reader in Learning Analytics at the Open University has written about data privacy at university – he argues that obtaining consent to use student data to support learning is critical, but the need to explain the uses of such data to students and staff should not be underestimated.

Clearly there is an upside to using data to support learning, however the use of technology can have unintended consequences including potentially eroding the trust of students: it must be used with care.

Experiences at the OU indicate that, while some groups of students can be accurately identified as being ‘at risk’, a dialogue is then needed between staff and students to consider how to get them back on track with their learning. Rienties highlights the importance of communication not only with students, but also with staff. If teaching staff do not believe in, or trust in, the use of technology, they may actively work against its success. We see this in cases where academics do not trust the intentions behind module evaluation, the result being that they do not allow the use of class time for completion of surveys.

Lastly, Rienties states that, while important progress has been made in developing a coherent framework of informed consent, there is a need to provide evidence that personalised feedback and learning can be supported with learning analytics. With or without informed consent, we have a duty of care to provide the best learning experience to our students to maximise their learning potential.

Advances in learning analytics are indeed moving very quickly and evidence justifying its use needs to be urgently established.

I passionately believe in the the potential for better use of data in universities. But such data must be used intelligently and with care, and better evidence should inform its use. Otherwise it will not just be the Government that is accused of unjustly snooping.

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