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Stanford Leads the Way Towards Ethical Use of Big Data in Higher Ed
Colleges and universities would love nothing more than to deliver an educational experience so personalized that no student ever drops out and all students perform at their personal best. Big data has the potential to allow institutions of higher education to do just that. The problem is, higher ed has all of the data they need on students (more than they ever dreamed possible), but there are no ethical, legal, or moral guidelines in place to establish what data is okay to use, how it’s acceptable to use the data, whom should be allowed access to the data, and related issues. Practically, data analytics is a gold mine for educators. Ethically, it’s a big, questionable quagmire.
What’s Okay When It Comes to Student Data?
Stanford University is trying to change this by working toward establishing ethical guidelines that institutions of higher learning can use to access, store, analyze, use, and benefit from student data. The data comes to the institutions freely as students access school systems with their personal devices, use the school network to access other outside resources, enter their search histories into browsers using school computers, and otherwise leave a digital footprint a mile wide and a mile deep.
In order to establish acceptable, ethical use policies for this rich repository of student data, Stanford educators set up a consortium of representatives from other educational institutions, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and some commercial educational interests in order to develop a website of ethical guidelines for student data use by higher education. The website kicked off September 6 and is aptly dubbed, “Responsible Use of Student Data in Higher Education”.
It All Begins with a Website
The website is not exhaustive, of course; it’s a work in progress. But it’s a valuable starting point in the absence of current laws, regulations, or ethical guidelines. Most of the laws and regulations in force today regarding the handling of student data were established and enacted long before the true power of big data became apparent. It doesn’t cover data that offers such personal insight and minute detail as modern analytics is capable of providing.
Responsible Use of Student Data in Higher Education answers questions such as what the proper use of student data entails, whether it can be sold, who can buy it, and what the responsibilities of the college are if the student data gets stolen. Stanford University calls the group that convenes to discuss and decide on these ethical issues the Asilomar convention. Funding comes through a variety of Stanford programs, including the Cyber Initiative, the Digital Civil Society Lab, the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS), the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and the Spencer Foundation.
Establishing Guidelines Today Before Laws are Enacted Tomorrow
The determinations of this congregation of educators aren’t legally binding, of course, but it is an excellent starting point for institutions of higher learning that wish to collect, store, analyze, manage, and use big data on students in an ethical and responsible way. It is hoped that the project will eventually yield a means by which students can benefit directly from the data schools collect on them, through incredibly personalized study programs and initiatives that meet their needs perfectly. Schools should benefit from data by higher student retention rates, higher student satisfaction ratings, and improved reputations due to the inevitably improved success of their graduates.
Shouldn’t all industries be proactive in establishing best practices and ethical guidelines for the use of big data and data analytics? Perhaps this would prevent the necessity of more stringent laws, which are most commonly developed and passed by politicians who know little about big data and understand even less.
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