STUDENTS OR GUINEA PIGS? THE LEARNING ANALYTICS DEBATE
by David Hill
As more and more courses are delivered online it has become apparent that the systems whichdeliver the courses – Learning Management Systems (LMSs) – are generating a lot of data on learner activities and engagement. Course attendance, grades, forum activity, interaction with tutors, progress through courses, modules accessed, and other data, are all stored in some way in the LMS.
In the last few years a realisation has spread across the eLearning community that rather than just sitting there, this data can be pressed into service for the purposes of improving the student experience, designing better courses, increasing retention and achievement, and maybe other purposes nobody has thought of yet. There is a growing market for Learning Analytics software that generates reports on students’ clicks, page views, time spent logged in, and notes. I have been responsible for bringing one such product – CourseCRM – to market.
The trend has sparked a debate about the ethics of Learning analytics, especially in academic circles. Large educational institutions such as universities are generally bound by their own codes of ethics and data security; they can usually be found somewhere underneath the Mission Statement. Yet how exactly to handle Learning Analytics data is largely a chapter yet to be written. Scholarly articles have appeared in journals. Elizabeth Dalton, an LMS Administrator at a North American college, is basing her PhD on Learning Analytics and has more questions than answers on the ethics aspects – watch her fascinating talk at MoodleMoot US 2015 for her take on the topic.
The big question is, do educators have a responsibility to tell students what they are doing with their learning data? Some industry-watchers are promoting the idea of data transparency to foster trust. Just give students access to all the data. Simples.
This might appear to solve the issue, but really it’s just sidestepping it. How many students will have the time to sit down and analyse their analytics? Will they be given raw data without access to the tools administrators are using to generate graphs, reports and statistical models about them?
The Open University, which runs one of the world’s largest installations of Moodle, has been relatively quick to codify its stance on the issue, but due to its distance-learning nature it has been an early adopter of Moodle and has been gathering LMS data for longer than most universities. Maybe this is why it seems ahead of the curve in perceiving the need for an ethical policy.
One laudable effort to construct a framework for Learning analytics ethics is being developed by Jisc, a registered education research charity. Jisc issues prescriptive statements such as the following:
"Students will normally be asked for their consent for personal interventions to be taken based on the learning analytics. This may take place during the enrolment process or subsequently. There may however be legal, safeguarding or other circumstances where students are not permitted to opt out of such interventions. If so these must be clearly stated and justified." [https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/code-of-practice-for-learning-analytics]
The debate is very much a current one, and the extent to which standards such as these are adopted in practice remains to be seen.