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Student Privacy in Higher Ed Focus of Stanford-Hosted Project

A new initiative at Stanford University hopes to lay the groundwork for the responsible use of student data in higher education. Based online, the project addresses both the opportunities and risks inherent in an era of big data in the areas of research, application for educational improvement and representation in formal academic records.

The work kicked off two summers ago and again this summer when researchers from the university and Ithaka S+R held a workshop with 70 representatives from academia, government, non-profits and industry to discuss the "hot button" issues of the use of college and university student data. Ithaka S+R is a non-profit research and consulting firm that works with higher ed leaders and others on matters of strategic change.

The ideas from those meetings resulted in development of the site, "Responsible Use of Student Data in Higher Education," which launched last week. The site offers a home for research, as well as sample policies and papers on topics such as "A Brief History of the Student Record" and "Applications of Student Data in Higher Education: Issues and Ethical Considerations," commissioned by the two founding organizations.

"We're standing under a waterfall, feasting on information that's never existed before," said Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist and associate professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Education, in an article about the project. "All of this data has the power to redefine higher education."

"There's a lot of trepidation at most institutions about potential overreach and that leads to under-reach," added Martin Kurzweil, the director of the educational transformation program at Ithaka S+R. "So a lot of players are moving in to fill those gaps and it's not always clear how they're using student data."

Stevens and Kurzweil are listed as the primary contacts for the site.

The goal of the work is to "start a national conversation," Stevens noted. He and the other participants would like to see a self-imposed set of standards akin to those followed in the doctor-patient relationship. To spark that effort, the group developed a draft version of a general policy for usage of student data, which includes four principles:

  • Shared understanding, which emphasizes that students, instructors, administrators and third-party vendors are all part of a "joint venture," which requires contractual language laying out the terms of use;
  • Transparency promotes "clarity of process and evaluation," even in the most complex systems, so that students understand how their information is being accessed and used;
  • Informed improvement serves as confirmation that student data serves an important role in helping the institution become more effective at its mission and that research with student data adheres to the same protocols used for all research programs; and
  • Open futures suggests that "instructional, advisement and assessment systems" be used to help students, not to limit their prospects or send them down an education pathway they haven't chosen for themselves.

"Academic self-governance is an important feature of American higher education," Stevens said. "I'd hate to wake up one morning and have these issues solely regulated by the government."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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