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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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UW-Madison students enrolled in data monitoring experiment without ability to opt out

The Learning Analytics Center of Excellence is rolling out an analytical tool for advisors that has raised privacy concerns.

Thousands of students and instructors were informed by email earlier this month that they or at least one student in their course had been enrolled in a data monitoring experiment without the ability to opt out.

The pilot program, Learner Activity View for Advisors (LAVA), notifies advisors of potential patterns of low academic performance. Instructors and students are not allowed to opt out of the program, Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning John Zumbrunnen wrote in an email obtained by The Daily Cardinal.

Approximately 2,800 students are enrolled in the program, according to Zumbrunnen’s email. 

The two indicators of potential academic problems are if a student’s grades are in the bottom quartile of the class or if they have an assignment more than five days overdue. A student must have one of these outcomes in two or more classes for it to be flagged by LAVA.

The Department of Information Technology (DoIT) is pioneering this program through its Learning Analytics Center of Excellence (LACE), which aims to use data science to improve UW-Madison students’ learning outcomes.

Dorothea Salo teaches several courses related to information security and research involving human-subject data. Salo told the Cardinal she has some concerns over the nature of the program.

“Students want things out of learning analytics. They want to be able to say yes or no,” Salo said. “It looks like students didn’t get a chance to say no here, so I am forced to say that I do not consider this ethical.”

When students enroll at UW-Madison, they consent to the collection and use of their data “to facilitate the operations and educational activities of the University,” according to UW-Madison’s privacy notice

The privacy notice tells students their data will only be used for “the purposes for which it was collected, unless we reasonably consider that it is needed for another related reason and that the reason is compatible with the original purpose.”

DoIT told the Cardinal that the purpose of the LAVA program is to help advisors identify students who “may benefit from additional resources to support their academic success.” It does not allow direct access to a student’s assignments or course data, instead showing only high-level trend indicators.

These aforementioned trend indicators include being in the bottom quartile of a class, something Salo thinks is logistically “pretty ridiculous.” In high-level courses, the bottom quartile would be a small group of students who could well have a B average or better, she said.

DoIT told the Cardinal that students were not given an option to withdraw from the program because the LAVA project team “worked closely with campus governance groups and relevant authorities for institutional data to ensure that the effort is in accordance with relevant policies, laws and regulations.”

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According to Salo, if this program were a study for publication, the university would have to go through the Institutional Review Board because LAVA is “unquestionably” human subjects research. 

“But because this is being used internally, there’s less ethical oversight,” Salo said. “They’re getting away with maybe more than they should be.”

Student records are protected by the Family Education Rights and Protections Act (FERPA), a 1974 piece of legislation that governs educational institutions’ stewardship of student data. The state of data collection and records at the time at which FERPA was introduced was vastly different than it is today, which some researchers have raised concerns with.

In a 2016 publication by two UW-Madison Library and Information Sciences professors, Alan Rubel pointed out that there is a lack of clarity surrounding what FERPA covers today with new technology and monitoring methods.

“Do individual data points count as records or not? That is a big issue,” Rubel said in the paper. “I talk with my undergraduates and they are surprised about how much information is collected about them. I would like to see students made aware, so they can protest, object or decide for themselves what they think about it.”

Salo echoed this sentiment, stating that when she discusses the amount of data collected by the university in her information security classes, “it’s practically always the first time most of the students in my class [have thought about it], and these are people who are self-selecting into an info security course.”

More information about UW-Madison’s learning analytics policies can be found here.

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Cormac LaLiberte

Cormac LaLiberte is the current editor of the college news desk. He is a junior studying linguistics, and has previously reported primarily on social issues pertaining to UW-Madison. Get in touch on Twitter @CormacLaLiberte.


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