Obligations and opportunities

Education establishments holding big data on their students hold big responsibilities, but also gain a host of opportunities

The explosion of remote learning means the education sector is now more rooted in big data and analytics than ever before. Online teaching processes are now destined to continue inexorably, since the benefits of such operations have been firmly established.

However, with holding of great data comes a great responsibility to use that data appropriately, with concerns over commercial usage voiced just this summer. That said, personalised application of this data can improve student outcomes and institutions’ reputations alike.

Data dismay

An Education Technology (ET) article in July on the launch of the Digital Futures Commission’s report – Governance of Data for Children’s Learning in UK State Schools – highlighted the “dismay” felt by the authors in the commercial use of pupils’ personal learning data.

Indeed, professor Sonia Livingstone, one of the report’s authors, spent a year with Year 9 pupils in a London school and, “observed with some amazement the sheer number of data points entered by teachers into the school Information Management System”.

The report concluded with 10 recommendations to close “regulatory and implementation gaps”, including the identification of a need for simplified ICO guidance that explains how the UK GDPR and the DPA 2018 should apply to the education data collected and processed by edtech companies in UK schools.

Users keep mum

It should be noted, however, the dismay felt by the report’s authors on commercial usage of student data was not echoed by one of the UK’s most prominent parent forums.

When approached for comment on this subject, a Mumsnet communications and campaigns officer said, “There’s not a huge amount on the site about this,” suggesting either satisfaction with the current arrangements or ignorance of its potential weaknesses by Mumsnet users.

Schools under scrutiny

Last year in the US, a law came into force with similar aims to the DFC’s report.

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) was described as, “what may be the most sweeping data protection regulation since the Family Education and Privacy Act of 1974”, by Joshua Metayer, who drew attention to the college admissions bribery scandal of March 2019, which placed US colleges and universities under unprecedented scrutiny.

Writing ahead of the act coming into law, Metayer points out that irrespective of the CCPA applying to a school, all schools must take an interest in it, “because, with near-certainty, their technology providers, such as their learning management system, will be subject to the CCPA”.  

More specifically, the right to erasure provided by the CCPA to ‘residents’ presents particular difficulties for schools because many programmes offered by institutions rest upon the collection, use and disclosure of personal information.

big data
Image source: 8photo/Freepik

Vendor vigilance

By way of example, Metayer comments on programming offered by colleges during the first week of classes – a period known as ‘welcome week’ in the US, corresponding to the freshers’ week experienced by UK students. He sees this programming as based on careful analysis of data provided by incoming students, current students, alumni, staff, faculty and donors alike.

The CCPA gives students the right to have this data deleted but only if it was provided to the school by the students themselves. Likely, such data would be kept securely by a third-party information storage system, and school officials would be wise in assessing the CCPA-readiness of each of their vendors carefully.

Making magic

This point leads on neatly to a statistic identified by Jisc’s Digital Experience Insights Survey 2020, which showed only 36% of HE students and 37% of FE students surveyed believed their organisation told them how their data was used.

“Students’ perception of how their data is used is often significantly different to the reality and there is a need for awareness and dialogue,” said Dee Jones, Jisc’s director of data and content portfolio.

“Students’ perception of how their data is used is often significantly different to the reality and there is a need for awareness and dialogue” – Dee Jones, Jisc

Jones believes data is a hugely important asset to HE and other education providers, but to be useful it must be accurate – and accuracy costs. “When accurate data is brought together, that is where the magic happens.”

It can be integrated and aggregated to inform data-driven decisions which will ultimately reduce costs, although those responsible for establishing a return on investment may find definition difficult. 

Cleansing required

Data standards in university settings are defined largely by those within sector bodies such as HESA and/or government departments. However, there are numerous other data sources not using these common standards or structures and lacking the same level of quality assurance, leading to a significant amount of time and effort spent on cleansing data. 

Jones believes enabling providers to collect data once, and use it in multiple ways between internal systems and external data sources already using common data standards, is key. “This could improve forecasting, business and benchmark modelling for education providers and assist in strategic and operational planning and decision-making.”

Universities and colleges would also be able to move from descriptive to prescriptive and predictive analytics, covering all aspects of core activity, including business operations, course planning, research and student success.

It’s great to integrate

The integration of data is one of the challenges faced by Jisc and the sector at large, according to Jones. 

By way of example, she quotes the plethora of software available for use as student record systems or virtual learning and/or teaching environments, which creates difficulties in bringing together disparate systems and their data and problems for organisations like Jisc, when working with multiple systems at multiple providers.

Data drives diversity

Jones advocates taking a broad view which means, in essence, “Students need to understand how using data can positively impact their studies.”

Consequently, in the longer term, they could see how universities, colleges and government use data analytics to plan curricula, build employability for their graduates and even how the sector can support equality, diversity and inclusion. 

Tailored teaching

This optimistic message of big data being used to extend education’s reach is echoed elsewhere. 

“Education is progressively moving from a one-size-fits-all approach to precision education or personalised learning,” according to Luan et al.

The former approach was designed for average students, whereas precision education takes into consideration the individual differences of learners in their learning environments, along with their learning strategies.

The authors draw a comparison with ‘precision medicine’, where researchers harvest big data to identify patterns relevant to specific patients, customising prevention and treatment.   

Bridging the gap

However, the authors identify contemporary research gaps related to adaptive tools and personalised educational experiences as impeding the transition to precision education.

They see a need for adaptive educational tools and flexible learning systems to accommodate individual learners’ pace, interaction and learning progress to fit individual learners’ specific needs, such as learning difficulties. 

Big data is here to stay and, indeed, will only get bigger as more and more information on pupils and students is gathered by the schools and universities they attend. The challenge for such establishments will be to ensure use of such data furthers the outcomes of learner and institution alike. To these ends the DFC’s recently launched report should be of great use to UK state schools.

Big data can offer a personalised roadmap, pointing a student in the direction of optimised learning; educators with sufficient map-reading skills will be best-placed to deliver a safe and enjoyable journey. 

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