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    The StratEDgy blog is intended to be a thoughtful hub for discussion about strategy and competition in higher education.

Balancing Privacy and Helpful Attention
July 29, 2012 - 10:05pm

With online courses and new data systems on the rise, higher ed institutions are generating more data than ever before. While there are aspects of this movement that are truly promising, one reality is that we are making many assumptions about student behavior when interpreting some of this data.

For example, in the recent NYTimes article, Big Data on Campus, Richard E. Clark, professor at the University of Southern California, mentions the assumptions made when analyzing keystrokes. “Data analysts often make “questionable assumptions” about the meaning of keystrokes, he says. They assume students who are spending the most time on some learning material are most interested in that content, for example. “That assumption may be true when people choose to watch Netflix movies but is not at all the case in many university courses where few choices are available,” Mr. Clark says.”

Higher ed is not the first industry to collect massive amounts of data and try to make sense of it all. One such industry is online advertising, where big changes are coming due to data privacy concerns. Understandably, consumers want more control over the data they produce online. More cookies are being blocked, making less useful information available to advertisers.  Laws are changing in favor of consumer privacy.

Doc Searls, author of The Intention Economy said this in a recent interview for Harvard Business Review’s podcast.

“We assume when we walk into Nordstrom, or a mall, that because we didn't need to login and when we walked there, that we aren't being followed. It's possible somebody could follow us to some degree, and maybe that's happening. But there's a general sense of shared protocols that govern the ordinary behavior of human beings and society that are well developed in the everyday physical world but almost completely absent in the very uncivilized online world.”

Consumers are fighting against online tracking and business models are evolving. For example, and discussed on Marketplace this June, allow you to share your own data with retailers on your terms.

It can be argued that higher ed institutions are collecting and analyzing student data for economic reasons as well as learning outcomes, different goals than that of online advertisers in general. And presumably students are choosing to participate in an online learning environment where they know their data will be used to help them learn and provide feedback to their instructor. They also might be more used to being monitored online. Even given these unspoken rules, can anything be foreshadowed?  

Will students just accept that we will now know which textbook page they read, at what time, and for how long… and potentially act on that information? Or will students eventually want more control of the data they “produce?”


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