There are many positive arguments for the use of data in education, but data collectors have a responsibility to ensure it really does benefit students and their institutions.
At last week’s Data Matters conference, organised by QAA, HESA and Jisc, we heard Harrods’ customer insights director, David Boyle, argue that data collectors need a "why?" and a sense-making story - not just a load of data.
To me, this means that collectors have a moral duty to ensure that the data we gather is used to benefit the life chances of those we work with, not simply collect it "just in case".
In the context of education, this means making sure that student data is well protected and only used to the advantage of the student and their education journey. There is a delicate balance to be struck between data protection, sharing data for analytics purposes and acting on what that data can reveal to support students throughout their university journey.
Ensuring we get the balance right
Firstly, our approach must be consensual. Indeed, our success relies on it being consensual.
Many universities and colleges use learning analytics to collate a vast amount of existing data from sources including virtual learning environments, library systems and other student records.
Universities, colleges and organisations like Jisc are held in a position of trust. We must not abuse that trust and should do our best to make sure that students’ data is protected and not misused.
Educational institutions in the UK already have information management practices and procedures in place and have extensive experience of handling sensitive and personal data in accordance with the Data Protection Act (DPA) 1998. Following the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018, universities will also have to examine the procedures for processing personal data.
When Jisc developed a learning analytics system in collaboration with universities and colleges, we also established a code of practice for learning analytics along with providers and the National Union of Students.
This sets out the responsibilities of educational institutions to ensure that learning analytics is carried out responsibly, appropriately and effectively. It is now being used as a checklist for the issues they need to think about when rolling out a project.
The code ensures that institutions address ethical and legal issues in their collection and retaining of data. Its underlying philosophy is that learning analytics should be carried out for the benefit of students, with the students’ views in mind.
Improving the student experience
But it is not only learning analytics that we must think about. The Data Matters conference also heard about a number of innovations from around the sector, including projects to make more efficient use of location data on campus.
Jisc’s intelligent campus project uses the data collected on campus to improve the student experience. From the beginning, we were mindful of the fact that ethics, along with security, are perhaps the biggest concerns of campus users when aspects of the intelligent campus are discussed.
We have always emphasised the importance of an ethical, transparent approach to gathering student data. Our code of practice for learning analytics covers in some depth a number of the topics relating to campus data and is a useful reference for those wanting to explore this further.
And it is not just data directly relating to the student experience that we must think about.
Students interact with a wide variety of online systems in addition to those provided and managed by their universities. We need to ensure that they have the digital capabilities and knowledge to make informed judgements about what they share in order to keep themselves and their data safe online.
The rise in automation, robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) as part of the so-called fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) is transforming the way in which people engage with the economy and public services more generally. As a result, we have been keen to work with the government to raise awareness of and tackle some of the ethical concerns that emerge.
That’s why we have supported the Technology and Data Ethics Inquiry called by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics, which seeks to make some broad-based recommendations on how trust can be placed at the heart of emerging technology.
We are pleased that education will be one of the areas that the committee will scrutinise and will consider the recommendations as we develop our vision for Education 4.0 – the sector’s version of Industry 4.0.
All new innovations come with safety considerations and risk. We are taking steps to mitigate these risks because we believe that the latest developments in technology will produce transformational benefits for students and the sector, when used in an ethical way.