Data Privacy and the Student Data Warehouse

Data Privacy and the Student Data Warehouse

Executive Summary

Institutions of higher education in the US have increasingly relied on digital technologies that help to collect, archive, and circulate data about students and their contexts, facilitating the use of a student data warehouse (SDW) to support institutional planning. The SDW refers to the people, policies, practices, and technologies that facilitate the movement of data about students and their behaviors throughout an education organization. These warehouses have become a fulcrum technology in the function of postsecondary organizations, but the construction of SDWs often occurs in the background of institutional work, opaque to students, faculty, and staff. As a consequence, we know very little about the SDW and the decision-making that guides its organization and implementation.

Prior research suggests that the lack of transparency in SDW operations disadvantages students’ ability to manage their individual rights to privacy.1 SDWs collect demographic and behavioral information about students, but students are often unaware of this, and education institutions provide few avenues to allow students to control their data.

Building on Linnet Taylor’s conception of data justice, this brief outlines the development of the SDW, the data privacy risks associated with it, and a decision-making framework featuring three actions that organizations should take to guide their decisions about the SDW:

Policymakers and higher education stakeholders could benefit from deeper understanding of student privacy, but there is scant literature explaining its value, and arguments rely too heavily on compliance with federal law. To foster this understanding, this brief explains that student privacy is rooted in contextual values and expectations, is critical to intellectual freedom, and supports students in their various institutional relationships. If learning analytics is to mature in alignment with the privacy protections and ethical practices that students and other stakeholders expect, HEIs must commit to the following actions:

  • Establish equitable data collection and archiving systems that allow students to understand and control the data that represents them.
  • Ensure trust and transparency in the use of data.
  • Empower students, faculty, and staff to be informed agents in the governance of their data.

As institutional leaders make decisions about the SDW, what it contains, and who has access to it, a student-centered approach to privacy would actively engage students in governance activities. To develop that approach, institutions should also ask the following questions:

  • If we incorporate a new technology, is it transparent to users, particularly to students?
  • Do individuals have the opportunity to control data collection and storage?
  • If not, what is the rationale for constraining individual autonomy?

Recent research suggests that institutions are not engaging in this work. Michael Brown observed that faculty became resistant to data-driven teaching and learning initiatives when they realized that, like their students, they would also be subject to the opaque algorithms that classified student behavior.3 Brown and Carrie Klein observed that institutions rarely updated their policies to reflect the kind of dynamic, real-time data collection that occurred on campus, constraining students’ access to their data and placing narrow limits on which information students could reasonably expect to keep private.4 This current approach, lacking reflection and proactive planning, has strong potential for harm and privacy violations. By actively engaging stakeholders in governance of their data, postsecondary institutions can serve as a model for how other institutions and stakeholders in our datafied society could govern the collection, circulation, and assetization of data.