Monday, January 30, 2012

#LAK12 Google vs. your English 101 instructor

LA is fundamentally ethically different from the analysis done by online vendors because of power differentials. The relationship between you and your English 101 instructor, or your institution of higher education as a whole, is much different than your relationship between you and Google or Facebook or Amazon.

When online, we often operate under the assumption that our activities are occurring in our bedrooms, so to speak. We don’t always consciously operate as if our online activities are actually occurring out in the scrutinizable open – although we should be aware of that, if we read the fine print in the terms of agreement. Yet, if they are aware, most people are OK with knowing that Google/Amazon/Facebook is mining their every tweet. Most of us don't know anybody working for those corporations, and even if we did, we know that we are one of multimillions...our online actions are just a drop in the big data bucket.

However, the dynamics between a student and the institution of higher education in which he/she is enrolled is quite different. In this case, the people analysing their data trail may actually KNOW them, and may have the power to award grades, offer or withhold a job reference, or dole out scholarships, work-study jobs, or internship leads. Now, our data is subject to the institutional gaze, and those eyes do have the power to reward and punish. It is a power differential tilted markedly toward the institution. Learning analytics may help a student persist along the path towards college completion, but I believe that the analysands' feelings about being scrutinized by individuals in positions of power (including their instructors) at a university would be much different than their feelings about Google or Facebook mining even that same pot of data.


  1. I agree, Nancy, and I'd go further, because I think the data that's being analysed in education is more sensitive. So Amazon knows my taste in books and CDs? Facebook knows which of my friends I really like to engage with and which I only just tolerate? Big deal. I know these datasets reveal more about me than I might at first realise, but I still don't feel they're than sensitive. As for my study behaviour, my self-discipline, persistence in the face of challenges, and my dumb mistakes when trying to master a new skill — all of these feel way more sensitive. What is more, I don't feel that I have a good handle on my personal stats in these areas myself. I feel I sometimes give up too easily, or read superficially, but am I better or worse than average? I don't really know. It spooks me that the person I see for tutorials has privileged access to this kind of data, and thus, in some way, knows me better than I know myself. This is not a good foundation for a trusting, supportive relationship. So what would such a foundation look like in the analytics era? It seems to me that each individual learner should feel that they 'own' their data in the sense that they have privileges to view, analyse and share it that are unique to them. Sure, the institution may ultimately provide the platform for capturing that data (though they don't own Blogger, WordPress etc). But maybe tutoring staff just have access to aggregate profile data for their learners by default, with access to more fine-grained detail if granted by the learners. Just thinking aloud here.

  2. David, I think that George seemed to address this aspect in a couple of his points in the EDUCAUSE webinar today. First off, he said a possible way to present this to learners would be "privacy as a transactional entity;" so if you, the student, will trade some of your privacy, we will be able to get more insight into your learning behaviors and be able to remediate & improve them, etc. This seems to point to an opt-in environment. Personally, I don't think this should be a once and done deal...maybe a student should have to decide for every course/instructor/purpose/campus unit what information they wanted them to see? Kind of like permissions in Facebook?

    He also had a slide on "principles of LA" which seemed to be the glimmerings of a manifesto on data use and practices in LA. One of those principles was, "All LA data that the institution captures/analyzes, the learner should be able to see as well." I like that, and what you're advocating seems to take it a step further.