The ethics of learning analytics #LAK12

A colleague and I have decided to explore the area of the ethics of learning analytics in the field of Higher education. Is it necessarily a ‘good thing’ to know more about our students than the face that they choose to present? What are the dangers of making assumptions about their current or future behaviour based on what we (think we) know about them? 

The ideologies behind learning analytics in an educational context are assumed to be positive – by knowing and understanding more about our students, we can support them more effectively, help them to reach their goals (even if we decide that they’re not quite what the student thinks they are), ensure that effort is used efficiently by targeting messages and interactions only at those students who may need them. But what are the downsides?

We can only act on what the student has told us. So, if we make an assumption based on what may be, for instance, outdated information, are we offering misguided advice or denying a student support that they may actually need? Are all students displaying the same set of share characteristics actually all the same? For learning analytics to work effectively (and efficiently), we have to model predicted behaviour based on a relatively small set of data characteristics and observed study behaviours – how accurate are the models then?

The idea of labeling is perhaps particularly contentious. Should students know that they have been labeled as, for example, potentially vulnerable. What happens when students within a single cohort realise that they are each receiving different messages, different levels of support?

Although the concept of using learning analytics seems at first to be a golden opportunity to provide more tailored (and of course, more cost-effective) support to students, is there simply too much that we don’t yet know about it in the context of education? We hope to explore these and many other issues as part of a half day workshop at the LAK12 conference in Vancouver (April 2012)  – watch this space! #LAK12

About sharonslade

Dr Sharon Slade is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Law at the Open University in the UK working to support both tutors and students on Open University distance learning modules and programmes. Her research interests encompass ethical issues in learning analytics and online learning and tuition. Project work includes the development of a student support framework to improve retention and progression and the development of a university wide tool for tracking students and triggering relevant and targeted interventions. She led the development of new policy around the ethical use of learning analytics within the Open University, UK.
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9 Responses to The ethics of learning analytics #LAK12

  1. Thanks for raising the issue of ‘ethics’ in learning analytics Sharon. Your post raises a number of interesting questions that we should consider. And congratulations on your first blog post. Well done!

  2. Nancy Adams says:

    Sharon, I too, am very interested in the ethics of learning analytics and I look forward to your future posts. Specifically I’m interested in the ethics from the viewpoint of an academic librarian. Intellectual freedom and the privacy of our users is a primary value of librarians. My curiosity in this subject was aroused when I had my first few encounters with the learning analytics literature and found that data on academic library usage was mentioned as fodder for data mining. More to say about that on my new blog,

  3. Stephen Lowe says:

    Also, I’d like to say thanks for coming in with this ethics approach… it’s a thread I’ll be following. My own approach has been to anonymise and abstract the student user data and try to learn very general things about the behaviour of student populations. You raise a number of interesting research questions here, I’ll try to attend your workshop.

  4. Hi Sharon, I’m completely with you on a lot of these concerns. For at least a generation now, we’ve been promised computers and courses and entertainment and you-name-it that would automatically tailor themselves to our preferences. Implicit in this is the assumption that the computer/learning environment/etc has a richer understanding of what we need than we can articulate ourselves. Well, if my computer, or some analytics whizz on the other side of the world, understands me so well, maybe they could share that understanding with me rather than keeping it hidden and just using it to tailor some product to me in ways that I can’t discern or challenge. Why not using these analytics to start a genuinely collaborative conversation about my needs rather than maintaining the rigid provider/consumer, analyst/analysand split?
    Looking forward to continuing this conversation…!

    • sharonslade says:

      Many thanks David – it certainly is a complex set of issues which is why I find it potentially so interesting. Businesses do seem to focus on their needs and subtly trying to shape what ours might be – it’s all a bit underhand in a way which is why I worry about applying the same tactics to students. Best wishes, Sharon

  5. Pingback: Ethical analytics « Carpe Diem Post Doc

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