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Proposals emerge to increase monitoring of students at universities

ByMolly Sandford-Ward

Feb 2, 2016

A push for increased data monitoring on university campuses may threaten students’ privacy.

Information that could be harvested includes grades, attendance, library activity, use of virtual learning environments, time spent reading e-books and accessing university computers, and information about student ethnic and social background.

A report by the Higher Education Commission has recommended that universities harness the potential of learning analytics to improve the service provided to students.

The report, released last month and titled ‘From Bricks to Clicks: The Potential of Data Analytics in Higher Education’, said “in higher education, students are leaving a data footprint behind in the course of their study, which tells us about their learning and experiences at university.

“Universities can use this data to understand how students learn and optimise the student experience,” the report continued. However, although the report outlined numerous benefits of increased use of learning analytics, some ethical concerns have been raised, which the report also acknowledged.

However, Barry Sherrman, MP and member of the Higher Education Commission, reassured The Student that concerns for student privacy would be adressed, and emphasis would be placed on ethical data use.
“We recognised valid concerns held in the sector around privacy, consent and security of student data during the course of the inquiry, something I was keen for the Higher Education Commission to highlight in the final findings”

“We have therefore made ethical data use, protection and storage key to a number of recommendations in From Bricks to Clicks” he told The Student.

This was reiterated by John Domingue, Director of the Knowledge Media Institute at the Open University and a contributor to From Bricks to Clicks.

He told The Student: “At the OU we take the privacy and security of student data very seriously and so we welcome this recommendation in the report. In the future, ethical issues will grow as we are able to collect and share more data, e.g. from social media site interactions, physical presence in every campus building, personal data on activity and wellbeing”.

“I imagine that we will have layered consent for students with default collection of some data and opt in for others (for real student benefit)”, he concluded.

Jisc, a UK higher education organisation for digital services, welcomed the report in a release on their website.

Their chief executive, Paul Feldman, said in the release: “this report unambiguously sets out the transformative impact that digital technology and use of big data can have on British higher education”.

He also noted, in a blog post on the organisation’s website, the lack of recommendations made directly to the government, commenting: “there’s a clear message that this opportunity is in the sector’s own hands to shape”.

Niall Sclater, a consultant at Jisc and another contributor to the report, told The Student: “It’s understandable that students have concerns when they hear talk about their university using their data for learning analytics, and it’s worth outlining a few issues”.

“Students naturally generate a lot of data as they interact with university services, be that accessing the virtual learning environment (VLE), visiting the library, or handing in and logging assessments”.

“Learning analytics is the process of using this data to understand learner activities and behaviours so that institutions can better support them”.

He clarified: “it is not done for malicious purposes, such as spying, marketing or selling to third parties”.

Andy Youell, the Director of the Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme, also praised the report’s findings on WonkHE, noting that its contributors are “senior, experienced leaders, strategists and politicians”, not those for whom the world of data analytics is a “natural habitat”.

He continued: “the key opportunity that this report presents is to put these issues firmly on the policy agenda for leaders across the sector; to take the data conversation out of the nerdspace and to a different level”.

Speaking to The Student, Sarah Porter, co-chair of the Higher Education Commission, said some universities were already recognising the benefits of data analytics.

She said: “the report highlighted work at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), where analytics are used to give students an ‘engagement score’ which is updated during their studies and which reflects how much and how well they are engaging with their course.”

“This score is available to the student and their tutor and this approach has been judged very positively by students at NTU”, she added.

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