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With big data invading campus, universities risk unfairly profiling their students

5 years ago
Obama’s proposed Student Digital Privacy Act aims to limit what schools can do with data collected from apps used in K-12 classrooms. But college students are just as vulnerable to privacy violations.

Privacy advocates have long been pushing for laws governing how schools and companies treat data gathered from students using technology in the classroom. Most now applaud President Obama‘s newly announced Student Digital Privacy Act to ensure “data collected in the educational context is used only for educational purposes.”

But while young students are vulnerable to privacy harms, things are tricky for college students, too. This is especially true as many universities and colleges gather and analyze more data about students’ academic — and personal — lives than ever before.

Jeffrey Alan Johnson, assistant director of institutional effectiveness and planning at Utah Valley University, has written about some of the main issues for universities and college students in the era of big data. I spoke with him about the ethical and privacy implications of universities using more data analytics techniques.

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SelingerPrivacy advocates worry about companies creating profiles of us. Is there an analog in the academic space? Are profiles being created that can have troubling experiential effects?

Johnson: Absolutely. We’ve got an early warning system [called Stoplight] in place on our campus that allows instructors to see what a student’s risk level is for completing a class. You don’t come in and start demonstrating what kind of a student you are. The instructor already knows that. The profile shows a red light, a green light, or a yellow light based on things like have you attempted to take the class before, what’s your overall level of performance, and do you fit any of the demographic categories related to risk. These profiles tend to follow students around, even after folks change how they approach school. The profile says they took three attempts to pass a basic math course and that suggests they’re going to be pretty shaky in advanced calculus.

Selinger: Is this transparent to students? Do they actually know what information the professor sees?

Johnson: No, not unless the professor tells them. I don’t think students are being told about Stoplight at all. I don’t think students are being told about many of the systems in place. To my knowledge, they aren’t told about the basis of the advising system that Austin Peay put in place where they’re recommending courses to students based, in part, on their likelihood of success. They’re as unaware of these things as the general public is about how Facebook determines what users should see.

Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Follow him on Twitter @EvanSelinger.

Originally posted via “With big data invading campus, universities risk unfairly profiling their students”.



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