Learning Analytics: Is data collection of students’ learning habits Orwellian or simply helpful?

For most of us who use the internet and social media on a regular basis, we’re pretty familiar with data analytics and the fact that our online activities are being logged by corporate entities.

Would you be surprised if we told you that universities do the same?

In a bid to personalize the learning experience and reduce the rate of drop-outs, universities have embraced “learning analytics”, or the analysis of data collected from various student activities.

Based on previous research, the more students are actively involved in the learning process, the more likely they are to complete their studies.

Students who are having trouble are also more likely to disengage from the learning process, which is something universities are able to notice from keeping tabs on student activities.

Some of the factors which commonly signal student engagement are: library use, card swipes into buildings, virtual learning environment (VLE) use, and electronic submission of coursework.

Universities use these factors to monitor student behavior and detect if any of them are having problems that could affect their studies.

Besides that, universities also analyze data collected from public posts on students’ social media profiles, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Last year, The Guardian reported that based on data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), more than 8 percent of undergraduates drop out in their first year, costing universities approximately £33,000 (US$43,056) per student.

According to researchers in the field, students leave behind a unique data “footprint” based on their day-to-day activities, which can be recorded and scrutinized.

Dr. Bart Rienties, director of the learning analytics program at the Open University, told The Guardian: “We’re trying to use data to improve our understanding of how students learn. We want to understand the story behind that data.”

Rienties added that with the use of learning analytics, universities are able to “provide a more personal learning experience, rather than a one-size-fit-all solution”.

In a recent study involving data collated from more than 113,000 students at the Open University, a student’s usage patterns of online learning resources can help predict their overall academic performance.

Despite the potential advantages of learning analytics, experts are also wary of its potential abuses, especially when it comes to students’ privacy.

The Higher Education Policy Institute’s director, Nick Hillman, said it was still too early to say what effect this approach would have in the long run.

“I think it has a lot of potential, but you have to be very careful. You don’t want a massive security breach, or for the data to be used in a way that some students think is inappropriate,” he added.

A technologist at Privacy International, however, believes that “all data has the potential to betray you”.

Dr. Richard Tynan said that laws should be updated to reflect the rapid changes in personal data collection, which is currently covered by the Data Protection Act.

According to Tynan, while the Act differentiates “anonymous data” from data that identifies an individual, with the latest advances in the field, even anonymous data can be used to identify individuals.

Another concern is that third parties can have access to the data collected by universities.

“What happens when the student leaves – is the system going to retain this data forever? How are they protecting it? Students need to know what the consequences are now and in the future,” said Tynan.

He added that students should be able to decide whether or not they wanted to be tracked.

Image via Flickr

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