Towards a uniform code of ethics and practices for Learning Analytics

Originally posted @ the SURF Special Interest Group Learning Analytics’s site by Alan Berg


In this article, I argue that we need a clearly defined, uniformly enforced sector wide code of ethics. Without the code of ethics and the associated practices we are vulnerable to external pressures. We may well react ad-hoc per institution to external pressures undermining consistency of practice, risking decreasing overall fairness.

Luckily, the Learning Analytics field is not fully matured. In general, we in Holland are starting to explore the possibilities. Fully mature campus wide deployments are going to slowly emerge over a number of years. We have time to discuss, evolve and generally tinker with a code of ethics and the derived practices.

The law tells us what we are allowed to do without legal consequences. Ethics is the true measure of which actions are morally allowable. It may be legal to read most everyone’s emails, Google docs, listen in on their Skype conversations and lie to congress. It may well be legal to filter information to support agenda’s, obscuring truth.  It may well be legal for the BND or other national secret services to share massive amounts of data with the NSA and lets not forget about the dangers of large-scale Internet surveillance and its negative impact on cloud economics. The Guardian Newspaper is doing a great job at publicizing many aspects of this evolving scandal.

A well-formed ethical code leaves little room for ambiguity and that is what the Learning Analytics field needs. When asking tough questions about our methodologies and comparing costs of practices, the first question to answer is, is this going to be ethical?

If we don’t have a unified code of ethics then the answer per University may well be different. As individual organizations we might react differently to external pressures. Higher-level management might reasonably have a different viewpoint than the practitioner in the field. Who is the final arbitrator of action? I would argue we should use a properly debated code of ethics and associated practices as that arbitrator. Not so important for Proof Of Concepts. However, an ethical code is much more important as we start to aggregate data sources. These resources can potentially be used as part of mass surveillance or influencing employment opportunities.

Where are we with our code of ethics?  Two recent papers worth reading are:

Learning Analytics: Ethical Issues and Dilemmas by Sharon Slade and Paul Prinsloo and an evaluation of policy frameworksfor addressing ethical consideration in learning analytics by the same authors.

The ethical issues paper states: “This research indicates that some higher education institutions’ policy frameworks may no longer be sufficient to address the ethical issues in realising the potential of learning analytics.”  This implies a potential of uneven action between different institutions if asked the same practical questions.

The second paper outlines a number of possible principles including transparency. This paper is a great point of departure for a code of ethics.

There are already laws that can help guide our code of practices. For example, laws reinforcing cloud ethics for the legal profession. We can use these types of already predigested practices to strengthen and clearly define our uniformly applied code of practices.

Spurred forward by the NSA scandal, the EU has plans to implement stronger data protection act with significantly greater enforcement around May in 2014. However,  the deadline feels ambitious to this author because there are so many interested parties and pressures involved.

Potentially, the best method for defining a relevant ethical code of practice is to measure against emerging contemporary questions. Here are some examples of questions that our sector collectively needs to ask and then measure:

Scope: If we are asked by external party to provide historic data about student activity.  What level of granularity is acceptable: At the user level, all the peope that might know the user level  or all the data? In other words, have we an ethical urge to ignore bulk surveillance requests.

Secrecy: If we are asked or expect that information be passed on to a third party. Should we make this clear to our students even if laws may forbid us to do so?

Practicalities: What are the conditions under which we are allowed to use cloud services, services that may well be part of a mass surveillance program? What are the implications for the use of social media

Terms and conditions: Should our emerging understanding of mass surveillance change the terms and conditions of our LA projects? Do we have to communicate to our audience the practices that we use and their inherent weakness, given the current state of technology?

Changing awareness: As new knowledge emerges, with potentially awkward implications for specific deployments. Are we going to be forced to react during the projects and at what cost?

The value of large datasets: If we discover we can do greater good by merging large datasets, for example help improving study success for migrant populations.  Are we ethically forced to work across institutions or are the increased privacy risks a greater ethical issue?

No doubt, I  have missed relevant questions. Please add to the list, comment, discuss and react with your own blogs. Do you think a sector wide ethical code of practice is needed or do you think institutional codes of practices, a bottom up approach is more viable? Let your voices be heard.

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