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The Edward Snowden Affair: A Teachable Moment for Student Affairs and Higher Ed

The erosion of our collective privacy has been going on for a very long time.  Most of us are (sometimes grudgingly) comfortable with the exchange of our personal information for useful products and services.  The biggest problem most people seem to have with the revelations about the NSA’s surveillance program is that it can and does gather digital information about everyone, and can use it at any time for any reason.  The fact that a relative “schlub” in the organization can access and use that information is one of the main points Snowden’s whistleblowing meant to get across.  This got me thinking about how we use data in higher education.

In higher ed, we’ve been collecting lots of data for a long time, and we’re bound by law (FERPA, HIPAA, etc.) to protect and retain student data.  Our student information systems have detailed security policies outlining granular role-based access, aka which employees get to see which student information.  These policies are generally structured on a “need-to-know” basis.  Here’s my two-part question to the reader:  first, how many of us in higher ed have articulated a policy about the data we collect on our students and how we use it?  Second – and more importantly – how many of us have published such a policy that has been specifically drafted for our students?

Every Student Affairs professional I know wants to use data to help our students be successful.  When properly applied, it’s a boon to our profession.  It helps us determine our students’ interests so we can help them choose an appropriate degree program.  We know this reduces both time to graduation and major changes.  Data helps us identify clubs, affinity groups, and other co-curricular activities our students can participate in.  We know that co-curricular activity participation increases retention, especially among first and second year students.  In our day-to-day jobs, we regularly use student data to determine satisfactory academic progress, GPA, eligibility to vote in student elections, reporting of all kinds, and so on.  With the move toward self-service web applications, we’re increasingly presenting data to our students and shifting more decision-making responsibility onto their shoulders.  This is a great opportunity for us to educate students on how we use data to help them, while increasing transparency about their data’s use.

In my opinion, that last bit about transparency is the key element for higher education. There are no shortage of articles about “big data” tools and how organizations use them for competitive advantage (whatever that means).  However, the tools themselves don’t address the more fundamental nature of how we “connect the dots” between disparate data points.  We should inform our students how we use their information so they can make better choices.  We should teach our students how they can use this information to their advantage.  We should help students understand that they are the masters of their own data.  In the same way that provides insight into how we spend our money, our student data should provide insight that lets students thoughtfully determine where they should spend most of their effort.

What do you think?

By Paul Schantz

CSUN Director of Web & Technology Services, Student Affairs. husband, father, gamer, part time aviator, fitness enthusiast, Apple fan, and iguana wrangler.

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