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11 Ways to Protect Privacy When Using Student Data

While student data has long been mined to support retention efforts and institutional decision-making, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new and sometimes troubling uses for data in higher education. For example, campuses might track students' location and social media data to monitor social distancing compliance and help prevent virus outbreaks, according to a new report from NASPA and New America. The pandemic has also "heightened campus interest in tracking student data to better understand how students are faring in online learning environments and the need to intervene with the right resources at the right time," the report explained. More than ever, the researchers argued, there is a vital need for transparency in how colleges collect and use personal data.

To gauge students' perceptions of data use in higher education, NASPA and New America conducted a series of student focus groups, discussing campus privacy, contact tracing, targeted outreach and more. Participants represented a variety of institution types, academic levels, instructional formats and racial/ethnic categories. Among the findings:

  • Students generally trust their schools to do the right thing with their data, and feel more comfortable with school-led data collection than collection by third parties.
  • Students were somewhat willing to be tracked to help combat COVID-19 outbreaks on campus, but were uncomfortable with their data being used when it wasn't related to the pandemic.
  • Students had mixed responses to social media monitoring (whether by institutions or via peer-to-peer monitoring) and felt it could create a negative campus climate.
  • Students felt online proctoring software could be invasive and an uncomfortable violation of privacy.
  • Targeted outreach based on demographics could be helpful, students said, but their comfort level varied with the type of communications.

The report offered 11 recommendations for institutions to be more mindful of student privacy when using data, both during and after the pandemic:

1) Limit the use of location data. "Before schools decide to use this type of data, they should discuss it with their students and have clear limits around that data," the report asserted.

2) Stay out of students' social media. Most students felt that monitoring social media accounts — even when those accounts are public — is a violation of their privacy.

3) Be mindful of data limitations. "Data on demographics are often limited and only tell a small part of a student's story," the report emphasized.

4) Clearly communicate data policies. "Institutions should clearly outline policies about data use and have a process in place that allows students to ask questions they may have about their data."

5) Use internal, university-controlled applications, when possible. Students were skeptical about how third-party applications and companies use their data.

6) Practice proctoring restraint. "Colleges should reduce the number of third-party proctoring companies with which students must interact and should be clear about what data they are collecting," the report said.

7) Avoid peer reporting structures. Asking students to "snitch" on their peers can have negative results. "Institutions who use this approach may face a backlash by students who no longer find the campus culture welcoming, a consequence that may linger long after the pandemic has passed."

8) Train faculty and staff in student outreach. "Ensuring that the faculty and staff responsible for reaching out to students have the right training is critical for effective intervention," the report noted.

9) Provide training for faculty and staff about online expectations. It's important that institutional expectations around student privacy are clear, and that faculty and staff understand what they can and cannot require of students.

10) Ask students who should communicate with them. While students were generally willing to accept help from advisers, their response to other campus roles was mixed. "Colleges should survey or conduct focus groups with their students about what messenger they feel is appropriate for different kinds of outreach," the report said.

11) Plan your messages thoughtfully. Students want to be treated as adults, and "reacted negatively to messages that they viewed as paternalistic," according to the report. "Colleges should test their messages with students formally (like in focus groups) and informally (in conversation) before they are used.

The full report, "Keeping Student Trust: Student Perceptions of Data Use within Higher Education," is available on the New America site.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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