The use of data analysis in academic education is also known as ‘Learning Analytics’: an approach that combines lecturers’ observations, student evaluations and data collected within an online learning environment like Canvas.
The discussion was kicked off by Kris Stabel of the Community for Learning and Innovation (CLI), who was mostly positive about these new developments. “The development of Learning Analytics contributes to the new vision promoted by the university, a crucial component of which is student participation.”
Wealth of data
For example, recording how long students view a specific online lecture allows you to draw conclusions regarding its effectiveness. “Online learning environments like Canvas open the door to a wealth of data that can be used to improve the quality of our curricula,” said Stabel. What’s more, they can be used to monitor and evaluate students’ learning behaviour, he explained.
Stabel’s latter statement met with some objections from the audience. In response to the question how many of the attendees agreed with an arrangement whereby lecturers can review their students’ activities within the online environment, only three audience members raised their hands – of whom two were lecturers.
The audience was generally more sympathetic to the arguments put forward by University Council members and student Daniel Sieczkowski. He was far more sceptical of the latest developments: “My basic premise would always be opting out beforehand, and perhaps consenting to share my data after informing myself.” According to Sieczkowski, the parties involved tend to pay insufficient attention to potential risks, drawbacks and possible solutions before adopting a new technology.
For example, Sieczkowski deplored the focus on effectiveness over quality, and the increasing regimentation of study programmes when students’ performance is subject to continuous monitoring. Sieczkowski: “When you’re at university, data can tell you all sorts of things about the best study methods, but you don’t have this kind of constant guidance and support in the real world. In addition, it limits freedom of movement for students who have developed their own learning approach.”
However, the main bugbear seemed to be a privacy breach along the lines of the recent iCloud hacks and the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. Sieczkowski: “Your data is basically secure until it’s hacked. In some cases, breaking into an ERNA account only takes a few minutes.”
When deciding whether or not to adopt a new technology, Sieczkowski draws inspiration from an unsuspected corner: the Amish in North America. This strict traditionalist Christian fellowship only accepts a new technology when its use contributes to the attainment of its members’ shared values. “Of course, in 2018 there’s no way to avoid data analysis altogether, but the point of departure – first give something careful consideration before you opt for it – is an appealing one,” according to the University Council member.
One of the students in the audience supported the suggestion: “Before I consent to something, you need to show that it actually benefits me.” A lot of the students raised objections against the possibility of their lecturers accessing data regarding their study behaviour – even if this measure were intended to improve the quality of the education programme.
Owners of our personal data
Philosophy student Mark Tieleman shared this view. “You’re required to give your full consent beforehand, and only find out which data is shared and used after the fact. Surely, we should be seen as the owners of our own data? That way, we can hold institutions accountable for keeping this information secure.”
With his essay More Privacy Equals More Autonomy, Tieleman was one of the winners of an essay contest organised by the university. Tieleman protested the fact that in many cases, you aren’t free to use a technology without sharing any – or a limited amount of – personal information. This made it clear for him: he only contributes to social media under an alias.
Both Sieczkowski and many members of the audience subscribe to Tieleman’s analysis. To take advantage of Learning Analytics and simultaneously safeguard students’ privacy, the majority of the audience argue for enabling students themselves to make an informed choice in these matters.