Big Data and Online Learning
In the Dangers of Big Data video, photographer and journalist Rick Smolan asks the question, “why is it that everybody is using our data, except us?” In the age of personalization, big data is big money and promises to deepen our understanding of human behavior on many fronts, including learning. The problem is – there is so much data being collected AND SHARED about us that most of us are unaware of the unintended consequences – some of which were highlighted in the video.
When it comes to online learning, big data (your data) is collected through Learning Management Systems. This passive collection of students’ actions and interactions when using the Learning Management System is considered acceptable in the name of “improving learning” or “caring for” students. Concerns on process-quantification aside, students might ask: What is being tracked about me? Who is using that data and for what purpose? How can I make use of my own data? Do I have a choice about whether or not my data is harvested?
“Learning analytics refers to the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about the progress of learners and the contexts in which learning takes place. Using the increased availability of big datasets around learner activity and digital footprints left by student activity in learning environments, learning analytics take us further than data currently available can.
The LMS that UBC uses is called Blackboard Connect and many UBC courses host materials, discussion boards, assignment submission forms, and grades on the platform. Did you know that when you’re using Connect that your activities are being tracked and analyzed?
What are they looking at?
The most advanced Learning Analytic software can perform the following the things:
- What pages you visit and the time you spend on each. This is called Network Interactions Analysis.
- The complexity of the language you use in your communications on the forum. This is called Discourse Analysis and evaluates the meaningfulness of your interactions.
- The assignments that you submit are subject to a Content Analysis, which is a computer-assisted technique that scans your documents and makes inferences about their value.
- A component of Learning Analytics is examining the social interactions you’re having on Connect and what impact they have on your overall learning. This is called Social Learning Analytics.
- Even your own attitude towards learning is scrutinized. This is called Disposition Analytics. Students who ask more questions are categorized as curious learners, and this data is tracked and analyzed.
What UBC’s Blackboard Connect is capable of doing is slightly different. Check out this blog post for a detailed look at the tools available for your instructors and to discover how your data is being recorded, analyzed, and stored.
Why are they doing it?
Ultimately, all of this information can be legally collected because it is done so for the stated purpose of facilitating and enhancing learning: learning analytics has been used to address students identified as “at-risk” of failing or dropping out; learning analytics has some potential to help universities develop personalized and adaptive learning environments; but most importantly, the development of readable “dashboards” for learning analytics gives educators a powerful information visualization tool that analyzes (via algorithms) and displays the digital traces of a students interactions in the LMS. For more detail, Jisc, the UK’s expert body for digital technology and digital resources in higher education, has produced a very useful review of practices related to learning analytics in the UK and internationally.
What can I do about it?
The ethics of the widespread data collection used in learning analytics has been and continues to be a contentious issue. The most central concern is who owns the data being collected. George Siemens, an educational researcher and proponent of learning analytics, would “like to think that if we do analytics well, we build a profile of the learner that the learner owns” (Campus Technology, 2016). Digital privacy experts argue that information collected will not and can not remain private forever, which means that the data collected is at a constant and continuous risk of being breached. If you’re uncomfortable with this level of surveillance, or with the risk of your personal information being exposed, there isn’t much chance of opting out of using your LMS.
Government Surveillance Programs
Surveillance programs, domestic and international, allow for the collection of your data (including e-mail, texts and documents) in the interest of national security. U.S surveillance programs (like the PATRIOT Act) allow their government broad access to electronic information, including research databases, private emails, and websites, in the name of preventing terrorism. Canada has privacy laws that are meant to uphold the rights of citizens and, in B.C., public institutions like schools and universities are bound by FIPPA. This ensures that students’ data stays in Canada unless they opt otherwise (by signing up for a cloud-based service like Google or Dropbox, for instance). But is privacy at risk as new laws come into play?
Edward Snowden, the famed NSA whistleblower, thinks so. In a recent discussion hosted by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Ryerson School of Journalism, he gives his thoughts on Bill C-51, legislation which will allow various departments and agencies (including non-governmental actors) to share the personal information of any individual to detect and identify security threats.
Michael Geist (Canada’s Research Chair on Internet and E-commerce Law) says Bill C-51 “represents a radical shift away from our traditional understanding of public sector privacy protection”. See his post on “Total Information Awareness: the Disastrous Privacy Consequences of Bill C-51“.
You can read our blog about C-51 here.
So, while the debate about the current state of affairs in Canada rages on, there are some things you can think about:
- Canadian information that is stored on servers outside of the country can be subject to scrutiny, especially in today’s climate of fear. As a result, many Canadian universities, including UBC, have moved their library databases, email and other internet sites to Canadian servers in order to maintain intellectual freedom.
- However, cloud-based services and applications that collect and store your personal data may have servers in “data warehouses” anywhere in the world. If you use Google or Dropbox or any other cloud service, your data may be stored there and subject to other laws and attitudes about privacy. Consider how you balance the convenience of using these tools with the potential cost to your privacy.
- Learning analytics have the potential to impact your privacy as a student. Inform yourself about what it is and how it works, but also the ethical considerations involved.
- Have a conversation about surveillance on campus. Ask questions. Learn about your choices.
- Universities are Tracking Their Students: Is It Clever or Creepy? Guardian – (Aug. 2016)
- All Stakeholders Must Engage in Learning Analytics Debate – Campus Technology – (May 2016)
- Learning Analytics in Higher Education: a review of UK and international practice – JISC – (April 2016)
- Anti-terror laws threaten academic freedom | The Varsity (2015)
- Bill C-51: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly | The Walrus (2015)
- Open Letter to Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security | Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioners (2015)
- “Total Information Awareness”: The Disastrous Privacy Consequences of Bill C-51 | Michael Geist (2015)
The Digital Tattoo Project encourages critical discussion on topics surrounding digital citizenship and online identity. There are no correct answers and every person will view these topics from a different perspective. Be sure to complete the previous sections before answering the questions.
Consider the example recently published in the article “Anti-Terror Laws Threaten Academic Freedom” by the Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper.
Imagine you’re an environmental scientist, or perhaps an assistant to one. As part of your research, you look into the RCMP’s recent report on “environmental extremism,” which states that petroleum resources count as “critical infrastructure.”
Interference with critical infrastructure is listed under the bill as a terrorist offence. You’re well-versed in climate science and renewable energy, and you don’t believe pipelines and oil refineries are critical to Canada’s well-being. So, like any responsible academic, you write a paper about it.
Under C-51, you can now be tracked indefinitely as a subject of CSIS surveillance and information sharing…
The author of the article. Malone Mullin makes the point that “In order to make the best choices as voters and citizens, we need independent academic authorities to have the power to analyze and relay unfettered opinions on political issues.”
What do you think?