Big Data Is Getting Bigger. So Are the Privacy and Ethical Questions


Big data is getting bigger. So are the privacy and ethical questions.

The next step in using “big data” for student success is upon us. It’s a little cool. And also kind of creepy.

This new approach goes beyond the tactics now used by hundreds of colleges, which depend on data collected from sources like classroom teaching platforms and student-information systems. It not only makes a technological leap; it also raises issues around ethics and privacy.

Here’s how it works: Whenever you log on to a wireless network with your cellphone or computer, you leave a digital footprint. Move from one building to another while staying on the same network, and that network knows how long you stayed and where you went. That data is collected continuously and automatically from the network’s various nodes.

Now, with the help of a company called Degree Analytics, a few colleges are beginning to use location data collected from students’ cellphones and laptops as they move around campus. Some colleges are using it to improve the kind of advice they might send to students, like a text-message reminder to go to class if they’ve been absent.

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Others see it as a tool for making decisions on how to use their facilities. St. Edward’s University, in Austin, Tex., used the data to better understand how students were using its computer-equipped spaces. It found that a renovated lounge, with relatively few computers but with Wi-Fi access and several comfy couches, was one of the most popular such sites on campus. Now the university knows it may not need to buy as many computers as it once thought.

As Gary Garofalo, a co-founder and chief revenue officer of Degree Analytics, told me, “the network data has very intriguing advantages” over the forms of data that colleges now collect.

Some of those advantages are obvious: If you’ve got automatic information on every person walking around with a cellphone, your dataset is more complete than if you need to extract it from a learning-management system or from the swipe-card readers some colleges use to track students’ activities. Many colleges now collect such data to determine students’ engagement with their coursework and campus activities.

Of course, the 24-7 reporting of the data is also what makes this approach seem kind of creepy.

The founder of Degree Analytics had worked with an oil company that used remote sensors to monitor its far-flung wells to track whether any drill bits were about to fail. He’s now adapted that idea for his new company — except this time, it’s the students’ devices that are, in effect, the sensors.

Just having the information isn’t enough. Colleges need to know what to make of it. When it comes to using the information to improve student retention, Garofalo says the assumptions his company makes aren’t all that different from what a host of other data-analytics companies do with the data they collect. it just has richer information on where students are and when, as long as they’re on the Wi-Fi.

CoEducation
Ms. Blumenstyk is a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education covering innovation in and around academe. For more than two years, Ms. Blumenstyk has been curating the weekly Re:Learning newsletter. Going forward Goldie will be using it to share her observations on the people and ideas reshaping the higher-education landscape. 

 

Degree Analytics is only about three years old, and it’s moving slowly: It has fewer than 10 clients so far. But this fall it will begin a pilot project with the giant California State University system. It will start at the Sacramento campus, but Cal State uses the same Wi-Fi and networking equipment for its entire 23-campus system, so it could easily expand. The system’s chief information officer, Patrick C. Perry, isn’t sure how the experiment will unfold. But, as he told me, “we are piqued.”

I have no reason to doubt anyone’s good intentions. The founder and chief executive of Degree Analytics, Aaron Benz, seems genuinely passionate about using data science to help students. If his company wasn’t doing this, it wouldn’t be too long before another company did. Perhaps some already are.

My concerns are broader: Just because colleges and companies can collect this information and associate it with all sorts of other academic and demographic data they have on students, should they? How far should colleges and companies go with data tracking?

I’m not the first to ask questions like this. A couple of years ago, a group of educators organized by Martin Kurzweil of Ithaka S+R and Mitchell Stevens of Stanford University issued a series of guidelines for colleges and companies to consider as they began to embrace data analytics. Among other principles, the guidelines highlighted the importance of being transparent about how the information is used, and ensuring that institutions’ leaders really understand what companies are doing with the data they collect. Experts at New America weighed in too.

See how hu-manity.com is enabling individuals to claim their data as PROPERTY

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I asked Kurzweil what he makes of the use of Wi-Fi information. Location tracking tends toward the “dicey” side of the spectrum, he says, though perhaps not as far out as using students’ social-media habits, health information, or what they check out from the library. The fundamental question, he says, is “how are they managing it?”

St. Edwards says it didn’t make extensive disclosures during its one-semester test last spring because it didn’t examine individualized data. But the university says it would be more open if it ever got much beyond the current point of differentiating students by categories like commuter and noncommuter. It’s unclear exactly how Sacramento State will disclose its experiment to students.

When Degree Analytics begins discussions with a college, Benz says, “the No. 1 thing we talk about is privacy.” The company holds meetings with students and takes other steps to make sure they know how their data is being used. It also recommends that colleges create Wi-Fi login pages that explicitly and simply describe their use of the Wi-Fi data — with a clear opt-out option. Even for Degree Analytics customers that do integrate the Wi-Fi data with other student information, he said, the company makes sure that the information is aggregated to cover period of time or a particular event, and not for one-on-one individual tracking. It’s not designed, Benz said, to answer questions like “Where’s Jimmy at 8:01 p.m.?” But, he acknowledged, that’s because of company policy. The technology could easily allow it.

Benz said his company’s policies, if anything, make its use of the data a lot more transparent than most colleges are about how they might use Wi-Fi network information. Fair point. Really, do most students realize that their institutions could use the data now to suss out whether they’re cheating together on remote exams?

So is this the future? Benz, at least, certainly hopes so. Inspired by the Wi-Fi-based StudentLife research project at Dartmouth College and the experiences Purdue University is having with students’ use of its Forecast app, he’s in talks now with a research university about a project that would generate other insights that might be gleaned from students’ Wi-Fi-usage patterns.

He wonders, for example, whether the data could inform decisions about how mental-health facilities are being used. I wonder just how far these kinds of tools can go — and how mindful of the potential pitfalls colleges and companies will be as they take them there.

Reposted from the Chronicle of Higher Education January 31, 2018

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