Just like a consumer buying a new pair of boots or booking a hotel for a business trip, students, from the moment they make contact with a college or university, begin to leave a digital trail of data.

But what data is being collected? How is it being used? And what control do students have in this process?

Higher education even more than the consumer world needs to take these questions of digital privacy and data collection seriously.

An Atlantic article on how to balance the benefits of data collection with data privacy in higher ed quoted Blackboard founder and Parchment CEO Matt Pittinsky on his cautious reaction to techies discussing potential data uses:

“I just sort of stopped and said, ‘I think you're describing a state of education where every interaction a learner is having with a faculty member and with each other [online] is tracked and used to form judgments about them, to form judgments about people like them, to form judgments about the next group of people like them.’”

“There's something worth talking about in that,” Pittinsky said.

Data collection and predictive analytics could fall into becoming just another form of tracking—with all the stereotypes, assumptions, and biases that educational tracks drag along with them. Many believe numbers don’t lie, so data is somehow clean of bias.

But who is asking the questions, and what questions are they asking, to acquire the data? What groups of students are being observed—and how does the observer affect the outcome?

Students concerned about privacy

On the other side of the aisle are our students, who are raising objections about their privacy. Parents express deep concerns about data collection efforts on the K–12 level; in higher education, it’s the students themselves who protest.

And while some call it a paradox that a generation ready to share its most personal thoughts and moments on Instagram would object to sharing data on class attendance, there’s one big difference: choice.

Sophistication about social media use has escalated quickly. People—especially those around the age of our students—know how to use these tools and how to protect themselves.

They turn to Snapchat and other short-lived products to keep from having a digital trail, for instance. They’re savvy about the difference between metadata and data that’s pinned to their identities. They’re going to ask questions about what universities are collecting, where they’re storing it, how they’re using it, and how it’s identified.

And they’re absolutely entitled to do so.

Policies and standards needed

Just a few years ago, concern over data privacy was centered around online learning. Today—and in years to come—ubiquity moves this issue to the fore in any environment, including traditional classroom settings.

At the beginning of the summer, a small group of academic leaders convened for Asilomar II: Student Data and Records in the Digital Age, a conference designed to look at how data is being used and discuss guidance for future policies. As Inside Higher Ed reported:

A handful of colleges, including the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Open University in the United Kingdom, have already issued their own policies on ethical data use. But Elana Zeide, a privacy scholar at New York University's Information Law Institute, said the diversity of higher education makes it difficult to create a one-size-fits-all solution. “As a result, the primary responsibility for student privacy and ethical information practices will fall on institutions, not lawmakers,” she said in an email.

Three big steps to start

The trends of big data and predictive analytics in higher education are moving faster and, in some sense, more silently than other trends.

In such an environment, our job over the next five to 10 years becomes:

  • Prioritizing transparency. Inform everyone, and when decisions are made about what to collect and how to use it, get student, faculty, and administration representatives in the room.
  • Determining value. The end goal should always be a better student experience. We must ask ourselves: Does the action align with our mission? In the hype around technology, it can be easy to miss this step. If stakeholders object to collecting data, a clear case for how some data uses can improve education must be made before student life can bring them on board. But it’s up to us to make the case.
  • Revisiting policy. Sharing and co-developing best practices on data privacy and using an iterative approach for this fast-moving field can be a better path than waiting until policy changes can be set in stone.

With these basics established, we can work together—students, faculty, administrators, leadership—to make informed decisions guided by value.

After all, there’s no point in collecting data just because we can.