The ethics behind data in higher education

Michelle Craig, head of marketing and commercial operations at Solutionpath, asks how ethical is it to utilise student data to help support their engagement?

Posted 25 May 2023 by Christine Horton

In the higher education sector, the issue of data ethics repeatedly emerges as the centre of many discussions and debate. Among numerous institutions, policies are being applied to make sure privacy, security and transparency of student data remains at the highest quality expectations. We are witnessing the rapid emergence of new and different ways of rising and applying this data. However, the variety of discoveries are proving to be a challenge for universities who are wondering what to do with such insight and how to decipher it for the benefit of their students.  When aiming to utilise student engagement data in an ethical manner, it’s best to think of a plethora of factors.

How do students expect their data to be used?

Millions of data points are created by university systems each day, demonstrating how their students are interacting with the institution. Such information is informative to both the student and the university in showing student learning behaviours and encouraging the two to hold conversations around behaviour change to help a student reach their potential.

By using data in this way, the focus shifts to positive outcomes rather than punitive ones – a typical misconception of student data usage.  What is essential is reassuring students know that these are the intentions and that interpreting their own data can also prove as beneficial for them, too.

Exploring this question further can also help prevent potential unethical use of data in the future, as well as preventing it from becoming a roadblock to innovation and benefit. 

Joint research carried out by HEPI and Kortext questioned which digital learning resources should students be provided to students by their university. In second place was dashboards which can display their interactions with digital resources. 46 percent of respondents answered that their institutions already provided this and 44 percent felt that universities should provide it.  Using of data within analytics platforms transparently – where the data is visible to both tutors and students – allows meaningful, data-informed conversations to easily happen as students feel more compelled to understand their own learning journey wholly. students are empowered to better understand their own learning journey. 

What benefit can students receive from having visibility around their data? 

At its simplest, the engagement information in an analytics platform helps every student to understand what good engagement looks like for students on their programme of study, thereby helping them to navigate the complex world of higher education and to provide reassurance around their approach to learning. Comparing their engagement with that of their cohort gives students the ability to self-calibrate, self-adjust and self-moderate – particularly when this information is triangulated with assessment outcomes and viewed in the light of their expected degree awards. 

When viewed over time, engagement data helps students to understand the normal fluctuations in their study behaviours. For example, students may increase and broaden their effort to engage with specific learning opportunities or in advance of summative assessments or take time off to prevent burn-out.

It is clear from the following two quotes by students at the University of Leeds and Nottingham Trent University, who have access to their engagement data that, having consented to share data on their academic engagement with their university, they expect their information to be used in a meaningful way:

“I feel like that’s kind of what you signed up to uni for, for them to help you out, for them to know how to teach you and know how to make you a better student.” 

“I was able to see when my anxiety started and to have a system like this made it so much easier to understand the journey as a whole… because it is overwhelming.”

What steps should universities take to use data ethically?

As adult learners, students are ultimately responsible for how they engage with their academic studies, but of course, the university must still play its part in supporting students to achieve their goals, providing the necessary equipment, to allocate academic and professional services resources (including human resource) to enable that student success. 

The recent whitepaper, ​​Learning Analytics: Adopting a data mindset and an institutional approach to student success using student engagement analytics, explored whether it is ethical for institutions to use learning analytics to intervene with students? If universities have data on students and could see that they were at risk, do they have an ethical responsibility to intervene? Institutions, particularly individual teaching staff, have always intervened to a lesser or greater extent. Engagement analytics enables institutions to systematise the support provided to the whole student community – but is it a given that they should use this data to focus and target intervention activity? Many universities would argue that it is.

“Data is extremely powerful, and for Essex, it now plays a vital role in supporting delivery of our mission across education and research. There is important and healthy scepticism about the potential risks, and we have explicitly acknowledged and articulated the importance of the responsible use of data,” said Richard Stock, Academic Registrar, University of Essex.

“We believe that making student data collection transparent and open directly supports their skills development – it’s enabling them to become more diligent,” added Professor Mark Simpson, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Teaching) Teesside University.

Ed Foster, Head of Student Engagement and Analytics, Centre for Student and Community Engagement, Nottingham Trent University said that the “personal tutor/student model is in some ways a mediaeval – master and apprentice type teaching and learning approach,” and that “with student engagement data collection, we have the potential for a very different way of working”. 

The next chapter for data ethics

To progress the data ethics agenda in 2023, and effectively navigate this increasingly complex data landscape, education institutions and their technology partners must look to build a common understanding of why we are using student engagement data, whether that be for student success, to spot early warning signs, or to improve the overall student experience; and to be clear on what type of data is being looked at.

In the coming months, as the impact of the cost-of-living crisis for students continues to emerge, the sector will be looking at how data can support mental health and wellbeing strategies. Institutions will already be capturing data on when students log into systems, access learning spaces, or are seen by services. Bringing these together and ensuring the teams supporting students know about them can make a significant impact. Providers can use data to support tutors and student services to deliver early, lower impact interventions that can benefit students’ wellbeing.

Analytics platform providers must also not underestimate the importance of the student voice, working in partnership with universities and their students on any institutional engagement analytics strategies. A two-way channel of communication should remain open on how and why universities are tracking engagement, and continual improvements and changes should be discussed openly. 

The sector is at an exciting point in its data journey as the way data is viewed and used is becoming more and more sophisticated. Growing evidence of the positive impacts from using near real-time lead indicators to support student success is also emerging [REFS].

Through open discussion about the implications of data analysis, and by creating opportunities for challenge, debate and meaningful dialogue on the topic, the sector can ensure it maintains an ethical position and that the best interests of students remain paramount.