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  • 11.20.19

Who Owns My Data? Privacy Versus Profit in the Use of Student Data in Higher Education

  • by Audrey J. Murrell, Acting Dean, University of Pittsburgh Honors College

In a previous piece titled “Big Data and the Problem of Bias in Higher Education,” I wrote about the increasing use of big data within higher education used to help us better understand and improve student success. While there are tremendous benefits, I challenged us to acknowledge that these tools are impacted by human judgement, which we know falls far short of being error-free. Within that same context, there is increasing concern over the use of large repositories of information collected on student outcomes, learning, and preferences. These “digital footprints” are not only important for higher education to make better decisions, but also have inherent commercial value that, to date, have not been fully realized or regulated. This leads to a critical question for higher education institutions in terms of the rights and responsibilities of these rich data repositories. Put simply, who owns and is entitled to profit from these data?

The issue of privacy and ownership rights over user data came to the public forefront recently as part of the controversy involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytics. The selling of Facebook data that provided substantial financial wins for the company was challenged as a breach of privacy for users of the technology. This controversy put a spotlight on the commercial value of user data generated by all types of applications, social media platforms, and internet sites including data systems used within higher education.

Although hard to calculate, the selling of user information is a multi-billion dollar global industry. The Financial Times created a model that allows a person to calculate the worth of their individual data as a way to highlight the growing value of collecting and selling user data. Shopping preferences, travel history, fitness habits, and social media activity are only a few examples of valuable data that are traded and sold often without users’ awareness, consent, or benefit.

We tend to think of student information that is collected on our campuses in a rather routine way. However, the emerging use of learning management systems, instructional tools, virtual teaching platforms, etc., pose some unique considerations. College campuses are tremendous sources for valuable student data that can yield substantial economic value to a wide variety of commercial enterprises. Thus, the issue of “who owns my data” is one that higher education must now also tackle.

In fact, last year, the European Union's comprehensive privacy rules went into effect, which signaled one early legislative attempt to address the responsible use of personal data. The new EU rules require institutions to take specific steps to protect personal information, regardless of whether they are EU citizens or permanent residents. This will certainly apply to U.S. students and faculty members who communicate with or attend any campus within the EU. These new regulations address a range of issues, like data access, privacy, and security breaches as well as rights to one’s personal data.

Most notably, the new EU regulations includes the “right to erasure.” This means that within the EU students have a right to have personal data erased, which has also been called the “right to be forgotten.” This request can be made either verbally or in writing. Institutions have a limited time frame to respond to these requests, which are not absolute, but provide some power to the individual user over their personal data.

While there is no indication that similar legislation is being planned for the U.S., it does raise a number of questions that are being discussed within some higher education communities. However, key questions such as "who is entitled to sell and profit from my data" is something that is not yet openly discussed on many campuses within the U.S. education system. Can a college or university leverage relationships with corporate partners to access their vast repository of student data as an ongoing source of revenue? Can an individual faculty member become an educational entrepreneur by sharing information about student learning, educational tools, and academic outcomes? Does a student have a right to refuse, request to erase, or demand ownership rights such that profits made from their data are shared?

As we struggle to answer the complex and dynamic questions over the ethical use of data and information within higher education, these are a few of the daunting issues that must be addressed. This endeavor includes not only discussion over the use of, privacy of, and profit from existing tools, but how to address the rapid pace of emerging technologies that also yield valuable data, such as the use of geolocation software being used to address campus safety.

Getting a handle on the complex issue of privacy versus profit within the growing EdTech and learning analytics industries is difficult, but necessary, work for higher education. Some efforts are already underway, such as a group of sample policies for colleges and universities that came out of the “Responsible Use of Student Data in Higher Education” initiative. While policies are a necessary and essential first step, addressing this critical issue will require more than static policy statements. It will take open dialog and leadership action within the higher education community along with transparency by companies and vendors within the EdTech industry to create meaningful change. Rapid change is not coming – it has arrived. The question for higher education is – when will we be ready?

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