Ethical use of big data to support low socioeconomic students

Year: 2019

Author: McLean, Claire, Loebbert, Alexander, LeLacheur, Kate, Smith, Lindy

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Universities gather and have access to more information than ever before on students as they progress through their academic career. This data ranges from demographic data to in depth academic performance data. CQUniversity Australia is investing part of the university’s Australian Government Higher Education and Partnership Program (HEPPP) funding in a data analytics initiative; BIG HEPPP Analytics supports all CQUni HEPPP funded programs and initiatives. BIG HEPPP Analytics aims to use analytical methods to assist programs that support students from low socio-economic (low SES) backgrounds and whilst it is a powerful tool it does pose the question “how far do we go?” As part of this program, a study was conducted into the ethical considerations which must be considered when using student data to make institutional decisions about student support. One of the primary considerations we discuss is the right of the students to decide how their data is used. While sometimes students give explicit consent for data to be used, for example when they reply to a survey, the university also holds a wealth of data on students including academic information such as grades and demographic information such as SES status. Students also often produce valuable data unintentionally, for example a student who “checks in” to the library at 1am may provide key information about the need for overnight library access. Would this data be “fair game” for analysis or would it be unethical to do so without the student’s knowledge? In this study, we weigh the benefits of using data to improve student support and retention against any potential risks to student trust and privacy. Within the context of the BIG HEPPP Analytics initiative we discuss the measures that could be taken to responsibly use this data and suggest institutional policy solutions that may meet the needs of the university without alienating the student body.