Big Data: Wrongs and Rights

Last week I gave a seminar “Big Data Wrongs and Rights” at Southampton University on how data protection law could provide support and guidance for universities’ use of learning analytics. The next day Jisc launched a Code of Practice on Learning Analytics, which puts many of the same ideas into practical form.

After the seminar I was asked whether this was a tool universities should be using at all, given the often scary reports of how “big data” might be used by businesses and governments. Shouldn’t we be deleting data rather than analysing it? However it seems to me that if we did that then both universities and students (like me) would miss out many opportunities to make education better. Both students and staff have already come up with many ideas for how data about learning could be used to help them. It was particularly good to have the National Union of Students participating in the development of the Code of Practice. All of this can be done by making better use of information that universities already have: there’s no need to collect any more. And, pragmatically, there are already so many other organisations collecting our data that an act of self-denial by universities wouldn’t significantly reduce the risk anyway.

So what I hope we can do, using tools like the Code of Practice and the strong shared interest between universities and their staff and students, is demonstrate how big data can be used safely and productively. As we develop policies and processes that include appropriate safeguards against inappropriate use, maybe that’ll be an example to others to do likewise.

By Andrew Cormack

I'm Chief Regulatory Advisor at Jisc, responsible for keeping an eye out for places where our ideas, services and products might raise regulatory issues. My aim is to fix either the product or service, or the regulation, before there's a painful bump!

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