Student Privacy in Learning Analytics: An Information Ethics Perspective

The Information Society 32 (2):143-159 (2016)
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In recent years, educational institutions have started using the tools of commercial data analytics in higher education. By gathering information about students as they navigate campus information systems, learning analytics “uses analytic techniques to help target instructional, curricular, and support resources” to examine student learning behaviors and change students’ learning environments. As a result, the information educators and educational institutions have at their disposal is no longer demarcated by course content and assessments, and old boundaries between information used for assessment and information about how students live and work are blurring. Our goal in this paper is to provide a systematic discussion of the ways in which privacy and learning analytics conflict and to provide a framework for understanding those conflicts. We argue that there are five crucial issues about student privacy that we must address in order to ensure that whatever the laudable goals and gains of learning analytics, they are commensurate with respecting students’ privacy and associated rights, including (but not limited to) autonomy interests. First, we argue that we must distinguish among different entities with respect to whom students have, or lack, privacy. Second, we argue that we need clear criteria for what information may justifiably be collected in the name of learning analytics. Third, we need to address whether purported consequences of learning analytics (e.g., better learning outcomes) are justified and what the distributions of those consequences are. Fourth, we argue that regardless of how robust the benefits of learning analytics turn out to be, students have important autonomy interests in how information about them is collected. Finally, we argue that it is an open question whether the goods that justify higher education are advanced by learning analytics, or whether collection of information actually runs counter to those goods.

Author's Profile

Alan Rubel
University of Wisconsin, Madison


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