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Student data privacy starts with a cooperative spirit, says SoIC professor

December 13, 2022

What level of privacy should students expect? And are college and universities prepared to deliver?

IU’s Kyle Jones, Ph.D., researches student privacy issues. He and his team have interviewed students and examined how their data is collected and used in higher education. Going forward, it’s crucial to involve students in the data collection process, says Jones, an associate professor of library and information science at the IU School of Informatics and Computing in Indianapolis.

“We shouldn’t be using students as unknowing research subjects,” he says.

In his paper “The Datafied Student: Why Students’ Data Privacy Matters and the Responsibility to Protect It,” Jones examines the evolution of student data privacy, and ways to improve. Earlier this year the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, published Jones’ report of his research.

Privacy and power

“The increasing collection of student data raises red flags about whether such practices invade privacy,” Jones writes, and other issues, “such as the potential for bias, racial and other discrimination.”

Even more notable, he adds, is the power that institutions gain over their students, capturing student life and behaviors in “mandated digital learning systems and tracking students’ locations via radio-frequency identification chips in their university ID cards.”

Concerns about student privacy are increasing, he says, as higher education institutions develop ways to mine and analyze student and educational data – data, he says, that has the potential to harm students’ education and job prospects.

“Privacy is an instrumental element of higher education’s commitment to intellectual freedom,” Jones writes.

“Students in higher education need intellectual privacy protections to uphold their intellectual freedom now more than ever,” he notes, citing the issues of institutional surveillance and learning analytics.

Are the benefits worth it?

Colleges and universities scrutinize student data for many reasons. The practice, known as learning analytics, began around 2010. Higher education officials claim it can increase efficiency, save money, and benefit students by improving teaching, learning outcomes, and student support.

But, Jones notes, the facts don’t necessarily support those claims—especially when weighed against privacy concerns, and the financial toll that investing in learning analytics takes on public institutions.

“The weak benefits of learning analytics lead us to question whether investments in data infrastructures,” he writes, “outweigh the real harms, primarily those regarding student data privacy.”

And there isn’t much of a track record to evaluate. “Educational data mining and learning analytics is still a fledgling field,” Jones says. “In due time—using vetted, empirical research that protects participants from privacy harms—we may see real, useful gains that can improve learning.

“We shouldn’t be buying vended solutions without substantiated evidence supporting corporate PR claims.”

A path forward

To align with the privacy protections and ethical practices that students and other stakeholders expect, Jones says higher education institutions must commit to:

  • Reviewing analytic initiatives for fairness, bias, and privacy problems.
  • Weighing the consequences of privacy-invading tech, and its ability to prop up administrative interests
  • Co-designing learning analytics going forward, with the participation of students and other stakeholders, to ensure an equitable, agreeable vision and implementation of the technology.

Benefit analysis and buy-in

“Students are expected to be always on, to stay connected to their university’s network, to access, to consume, to share information—and to manage their lives,” Jones writes.

“Universities continue to advance their networking technologies in order to become smart universities equipped with an assemblage of sensors, cameras, and so-called intelligent voice assistants (e.g., Apple’s Siri, Google’s Alexa) to capture, analyze, and act on an array of data.”

To protect student privacy, Jones adds, “The academic community must rethink the development and evolution of learning analytics … and must actively participate in the design of learning analytics tools and the goals at which they are directed.

“No successful implementation of learning analytics infrastructures and artifacts is possible unless faculty, staff, administration—and, yes, students—frame their construction according to the core educational mission and with a shared, collective vision.”

Jones’ previous research, which included interviewing more than 100 students on how they feel about privacy, has revealed that they hold their universities to a higher standard than social media or eCommerce sites.

“The most trustworthy and privacy-protecting learning analytics applications,” he says, “will be designed with students, whose voices can help researchers and technologists understand what privacy protections need to be in place.”

Media Contact

Joanne Lovrinic