Maintaining trust in university data handling

As students return to a socially distanced campus there will be an increased need to track, trace and monitor. First, ensure that the trust is there, advises Andrew Cormack.

How do organisations use our data? We’re living in a world of surveillance capitalism in which our activities are analysed in the interests of a corporation, and we hope to get some benefit back. More personalised content, for example, or more relevant information. Perhaps the occasional freebie.

In education, the flow is significantly different. Here, the activities of students and staff are analysed, and the benefits are fed directly back to the individuals concerned. This may be hints to help them study or research better, or pointers to relevant campus services.

Universities and colleges that perform the analysis could gain indirectly from happier students, or from better learning and research outcomes. The benefits to students should be greater than to the institution.

In the post-coronavirus return to campus, the nature of this transaction regarding student and staff data will be particularly important. It’s possible, for example, that data might contribute to planning safer schedules, or routes around campus; managing and tracing contacts; even supporting those who need to self-isolate.

The idea of “protective bubbles” is already under discussion: BBC News and i-news report that Staffordshire University is considering housing students in groups taking the same subjects, with timetables that bring them on campus at the same time to minimise contact with other students.

However they proceed, institutions will need to get staff and students on board with any use of data they introduce. If people aren’t confident that these new uses are limited, safe and effective, they may attempt to avoid them – and that could make virus transmission more, rather than less, likely.

Canvas opinion

It’s very important, therefore, that if universities and colleges identify ways they might make more effective use of data, they discuss those with the intended beneficiaries. Students and staff may be able to identify even greater opportunities or point out problems leaders hadn’t thought of.

Rather than thinking about data, we should be thinking about the benefits of using it for good. How can it help students and staff? Which data can assist in that goal? At present we’re likely to be focusing on health benefits, but there may also be opportunities in learning, social interaction, management, environment, and governance.

Build trust

This benefit-led approach seems less controversial too; a HEPI study suggests that the majority of students would agree to their data being used to help others if starting from a position of some trust.

In a 2019 Jisc survey, only around a third of all students (34 per cent in further education and 31 per cent in higher education) agreed that they were told how their personal data is stored and used – and 30 per cent of HE students disagreed with this statement.

But consulting students and staff leads naturally on to transparency: being open about what is being proposed, open to comment and willing to change. Such engagement is radically different from what we are used to from commercial data users and should, in itself, build trust.

The next crucial step is for universities and colleges to ensure the benefits promised are actually delivered by the systems, processes and data being developed. That means thinking about risks to individuals in the design stage, conducting frequent sentiment checks as systems operate, and responding quickly to any feedback.

Particular warning signs to look out for include individuals changing behaviour to avoid or obfuscate data collection, any reduction in the voluntary disclosure of information, and any increase in the use of external, rather than internal services.

Finally, review. Did the system deliver the benefits expected? What can be learned from the process?

Covid-19 has resulted in a heightened awareness of the potential value of data and the potential risks. This is both an opportunity to increase trust and to lose it. To avoid the latter, institutions should regularly ask: just because we can do this, should we? How does it feel? Making individuals part of the team, not part of the product, will build trust and deliver benefits to all.

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