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The ethical quandary over student learning analytics

Educators have no doubt over the efficacy and need for learning analytics, but the invasion of privacy that it entails makes it an ethically grey area – because more often than not, the data is collected without students’ knowledge or consent. This is overlooked supposedly because it is done in the interest of better education.

Learning analytics – which can be loosely defined as the subject of collecting and reviewing student data to enhance the quality of teaching – made for an engaging discussion during a break-away session at the 26th ICDE World Conference, held at Sun City, north of Johannesburg in South Africa, from 14-16 October and hosted by the University of South Africa.

Dr Brian Desbiens from Canada’s distance education and training network, Contact North, warned against the danger of institutions becoming a power unto themselves in their quest to provide better education.

“Research done by faculty members is thoroughly questioned and analysed, but institutional research on the other hand is a different story altogether. Do we really review the methodology with the same rigour? I’m not so sure.”

Institutional research not interrogated

Dr Tony Thistoll from the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand said that, in his experience, such institutional research was indeed not interrogated.

In New Zealand, there is already a system in place that tracks school students’ data called the Student Record Transfer, which keeps records from pre-enrolment registers, as well as students' assessment records, information about their caregivers, and medical and attendance records.

This information is transferrable, so school administrators are able to electronically send student records from one school to another as the student moves, so there’s no need to re-enter a student’s record each time.

“We [in New Zealand] will also be working with various universities and tracking students’ employment patterns to find out, for example, what their income was after graduation,” said Thistoll.

While having this information is useful, it is not difficult to imagine that information collected could be open to abuse, and that was Desbiens’ main concern.

“There’s a danger of our institutions becoming more powerful than our ethical standards,” he said. “Because, while educators are trained in ethics, the administrators who have access to this information [learning analytics] aren’t necessarily trained in ethics.

“It is certainly open to abuse from people who have political agendas, and it can be exploited for financial gain.”

Getting smarter

Rob Paddock, founder of the Cape Town-Based online learning provider GetSmarter, said learning analytics were core to its teaching model, in spite of these challenges.

Tracking students’ online activity allowed GetSmarter to continuously improve future students’ learning experiences through post-course data analyses. Although less controversial, this retrospective approach is less effective than recent trends in real-time data analytics.

“We have an entire department dedicated to [post-course analysis]. But, while it is very useful, it is of no benefit to students currently enrolled in the course,” said Paddock.

Over the last year, GetSmarter has also adopted a real-time approach whereby data is reviewed in real-time so that corrective action can be taken while negative results can still be avoided.

GetSmarter now uses a system where students’ marks, online forum participation and other relevant academic performance indicators are monitored throughout the duration of a course. Those who are at risk of falling behind are contacted directly and provided with assistance before it is too late.

The intervention addresses a major challenge to online learning, where students often don’t have the appropriate study habits and discipline required to succeed because they have other responsibilities.

A Catch 22

But it’s a ‘Catch 22’. On the one hand, intervention improves online education – GetSmarter has an average 94% completion rate and 90% graduations – but on the other, the monitoring and collection of specific student data that it requires borders on an intrusive level.

Paddock said the company had been working on an approach that allowed students to opt out if they weren’t comfortable with being monitored. But, at the same time, it would reduce the quality of information that is gathered if some students are excluded from the sample.

Said Desbiens: “There’s a real hesitancy in our culture in Canada because of the potential misuse of that data, especially for underrepresented groups, who would get labelled because they may not be participating as much, and that information is consequently used against them rather than for them.

“I suppose the question is how do we, as educators, remain ethical?“

Professor Carlos Alberto Pereira de Oliveira, from the Federal University of Rio De Janeiro in Brazil, said educators should be given priority over students, who already are giving their information away to large online corporations.

“They give all their information to Facebook, Google and other such companies, so why not learning institutions? In a sense, that would only be privatising information that is already public for the most part,” said de Oliveira.
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