Big Data Is Getting Bigger. So Are the Privacy and Ethical Questions.

Goldie Blumenstyk at The Chronicle of Higher Education: “…The next step in using “big data” for student success is upon us. It’s a little cool. And also kind of creepy.

This new approach goes beyond the tactics now used by hundreds of colleges, which depend on data collected from sources like classroom teaching platforms and student-information systems. It not only makes a technological leap; it also raises issues around ethics and privacy.

Here’s how it works: Whenever you log on to a wireless network with your cellphone or computer, you leave a digital footprint. Move from one building to another while staying on the same network, and that network knows how long you stayed and where you went. That data is collected continuously and automatically from the network’s various nodes.

Now, with the help of a company called Degree Analytics, a few colleges are beginning to use location data collected from students’ cellphones and laptops as they move around campus. Some colleges are using it to improve the kind of advice they might send to students, like a text-message reminder to go to class if they’ve been absent.

Others see it as a tool for making decisions on how to use their facilities. St. Edward’s University, in Austin, Tex., used the data to better understand how students were using its computer-equipped spaces. It found that a renovated lounge, with relatively few computers but with Wi-Fi access and several comfy couches, was one of the most popular such sites on campus. Now the university knows it may not need to buy as many computers as it once thought.

As Gary Garofalo, a co-founder and chief revenue officer of Degree Analytics, told me, “the network data has very intriguing advantages” over the forms of data that colleges now collect.

Some of those advantages are obvious: If you’ve got automatic information on every person walking around with a cellphone, your dataset is more complete than if you need to extract it from a learning-management system or from the swipe-card readers some colleges use to track students’ activities. Many colleges now collect such data to determine students’ engagement with their coursework and campus activities.

Of course, the 24-7 reporting of the data is also what makes this approach seem kind of creepy….

I’m not the first to ask questions like this. A couple of years ago, a group of educators organized by Martin Kurzweil of Ithaka S+R and Mitchell Stevens of Stanford University issued a series of guidelines for colleges and companies to consider as they began to embrace data analytics. Among other principles, the guidelines highlighted the importance of being transparent about how the information is used, and ensuring that institutions’ leaders really understand what companies are doing with the data they collect. Experts at New America weighed in too.

I asked Kurzweil what he makes of the use of Wi-Fi information. Location tracking tends toward the “dicey” side of the spectrum, he says, though perhaps not as far out as using students’ social-media habits, health information, or what they check out from the library. The fundamental question, he says, is “how are they managing it?”… So is this the future? Benz, at least, certainly hopes so. Inspired by the Wi-Fi-based StudentLife research project at Dartmouth College and the experiences Purdue University is having with students’ use of its Forecast app, he’s in talks now with a research university about a project that would generate other insights that might be gleaned from students’ Wi-Fi-usage patterns….(More)