July 8, 2014
By Gary Miller
Higher education institutions have begun to use “big data” to help guide students through courses and the curriculum. It has some potentially powerful benefits for students, helping to improve completion student success. At the same time, like many other innovations, it has potential downsides. It is important that, in pursuing the benefits of big data, we also identify—and avoid—potential pitfalls.
One concern is that use of big data will make it harder for students to chart their own educational—and, by extension, professional and societal. Institutions need to make sure that, in the process of trying to optimize student success, they don’t deny students choice. At the same time, we need to make sure that we honor our other commitments to students. Some points for discussion:
- It is important that students know what data is being collected and how it will be used, individually or in aggregate. Given the ways that big data can be used to guide the student’s experience in the curriculum, it is essential that students be aware of how their actions are being captured and used by the institution.
- Institutions need policies regarding how they use data they collect. For instance, can the data be used to disqualify a student from a direction the student clearly wants to take?
- Institutions need to control the use of data. What is the student’s right to privacy in this environment? For instance, should institutions be able to use student data for purposes other than helping the student succeed? Should they be able to use it, in aggregate, for recruiting? Should institutions be able to sell data or use it to promote non-academic products and services to students? If a third-party is used to collect information, what use, if any, can the third party make of the data?
- Who, besides an individual faculty member, should have access to student data gathered during a course? Historically, universities have protected communications in a course. Should institutions that collect student data in courses be able to share that data—individually or in aggregate—with other faculty, with advisors and other student services professionals, or with third parties (parents, potential employers, etc.)?
At the recent UPCEA/ACE conference on online learning, one presenter described how big data was being used within courses to track how students use online content. The presenter described a case in which the course allowed students to request a “hint” when they were having difficulty with a problem. She noted that one student always used the “hint” as a first resort, which raised the question of whether the student was actually learning the course content. This raises two broad ethical questions: (1) In cases like this, should students be made aware of how over-use of a feature like hints will be seen by the instructor and encouraged to use the feature sparingly; and (2) If help is provided, should using that help be seen by faculty as a sign of weakness on the part of the student? It is an area that calls out for new rules and better communication about expectations.
Clearly, big data has great potential to help institutions better understand their students and, potentially, to help them guide students to success. However, for this benefit to be fully realized, institutions—and individual faculty—need to integrate the collection and use of this data into its culture and into the relationships that exist with students at the course level, the program level, and the institutional level. At the process, institutions must ensure that students are made aware of and are empowered by the data that the institution is collecting.
Gary Miller is the co-author of Leading the e-Learning Transformation in Higher Education, published by Stylus Publishing in association with The Sloan Consortium.
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