Education Technology

Responsible Use of Student Data in the Digital Era


  • Martin Kurzweil, Director, Educational Transformation Program, ITHAKA
  • Mitchell Stevens, Associate Professor, Stanford University

Mitchell gave an introduction describing who he is and what he does at Stanford (MOOCs were mentioned…), and reviewed the agenda:

  1. Why this session?
  2. Past and possible futures of student records
  3. Applying and evolving principles of responsible use

Mitchell also shared the Draft Principles for Responsible Use of Student Data, a hard copy of which was provided to all session attendees.  Attendee introductions followed…

Anticipated Takeaways

  • Overview of the current landscape of data-ethics discussions in postsecondary education
  • Recognition of how these discussions are “living” questions on our campuses
  • Tractable principles and policies of potential use in your own institution / organization

MOOCs via Stanford’s Coursera Product had an opportunity to surface the question: “What is the course taker’s status?” Are they a) a student, b) a customer, or c) a human subject? Depending on the course taker’s status, laws governing data usage is vastly different. The Asilomar Convention for Learning Research in Higher Education discussed language describing human beings from an ethical perspective. This convention came up with a concept for “learner,” which is distinct from a “student.” Contractual language surrounding these terms are vastly different.

Fact 1: There Now is No Default Platform

The classroom:

  • Classroom is physically and temporally bounded location
  • Exists in nested jurisdictions – college, district/system, US state, nation, – with relations negotiated over generations
  • Implies special sovereignty over content and evaluation for instructors

The web:

  • Does not entail physical or temporal boundaries
  • Commingles multiple jurisdictions whose relations are now being negotiated
  • Implies no particular sovereignty over content and evaluation

Fact 2: The Academic Record is Being Remade


  • Each person had one official college record
  • schools held records exclusively, in trust, in perpetuity
  • Available data for comprising records were thin, controlled by instructor-sovereigns and their designates, and difficult to integrate with other data


  • There is a rapid proliferation of academic providers and mechanisms for recording accomplishment
  • Schools have lost their cartel on records generally but retain their fiduciary obligations over their own students’ records
  • Available data for comprising records are rich, varied, jointly held, and easy to integrate with other data

Some points we’re going to cover

  • Institutional Practices to Improve Student Learning & Support
  • Data that are granular, collected in larger sets, are longitudinal, or are linked across systems
  • Application for educational improvement
  • Research to build basic knowledge
  • Representation of learning and achievement


  • Enrollment management
  • Institutional programs and policies
  • Early alert
  • Adaptive courseware

Great Diversity in Data Use

  • 2016 KPMG survey: 41% of respondents use student data for predictive analytics; 29% have internal capacity to analyze own data
  • 2016 Campus Computing Survey: <20% rated their institutions’ data-analytics investments as “very effective”
  • Ithaka S+R Faculty Surveys: minority are using any form of technology in instruction, although 63% want to


  • Privacy
  • Consent
  • Algorithmic bias
  • Opacity
  • Self-fulfilling prophecies
  • Institutional interest != student interest

Five Questions

  1. What data goes in the record, what does not, and who decides?
  2. Do educators/researchers have a responsibility to use student data in some ways?
  3. Do educators/researchers have a responsibility to not use data in some ways?
  4. Whose data (and records) are they?
  5. Do we have adequate language for talking about these things?

Principles of Responsible Use

  • Shared understanding: Data themselves are “joint ventures” between students, faculty, campus systems (LMS, SIS, etc.).
  • Transparency: credits are evaluative in nature; students can rightfully expect to understand how data about them is generated (and have that explained to them)
  • Informed improvement: institutions have an obligation to constantly improve themselves based on the data they collect and use.
  • Open futures: education should create opportunity, not foreclose on it. Data used for predictive purposes should be used to expand student opportunities.

We then read the DRAFT Principled for Responsible Use of Student Data document and reviewed at each table. A few of the things we discussed as a group:

  • Contractual language and understanding with 3rd party vendors who aren’t researchers
  • “Ownership” of data
  • Data has a life cycle
  • Principle of data use are not the same as data privacy
  • Needs to be a theory-driven, principled reason for collection of every piece of data
  • Who gets access to this student data?
  • Shared responsibility between students and administration (higher ed is held to a higher standard than other organizations, why can’t we have a EULA-like standard)
  • Reasonable security standard

The session then reviewed three scenarios and discussed as a group.

Governing Responsible Use

  1. Who should be involved in interpreting and adjudicating principles of responsible use? Who should NOT participate in the process?
  2. What challenges do you anticipate to implementing principles of responsible use?
  3. What kind of cross-institutional coordination, support, or resources would be valuable?

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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