Amazon-style "data perfecting" at university to follow students for life?

A new report by the Higher Education Commission reveals plans to monitor students “Amazon-style” at university.

Last year in August, two reporters at the New York Times published a damning exposé on the life of Amazon employees. It portrayed a unique form of data-driven management where data was used to monitor and measure employee performance and employees were held accountable based on metrics.

But what if students start becoming data-driven machines even before they enter the workplace? A new report from the Higher Education Commission, From Bricks to Clicks - The Potential of Data and Analytics in Higher Education, wants universities in the UK to use “learning analytics” to provide better feedback and “empower students to become more reflective learners”.

The report makes a distinction between “static data” which is information like admissions, applications, financial data and so forth that has been collected since its inception, and “fluid data” which is now the direction the data is heading in the digital age. For instance, thanks to swipe cards, universities can tell how often “each student is visiting campus” or when a student uses an e-textbook, it can generate data on “highlights and notes made in the text” and “even track data on where students’ eyes are falling on the page”.

The hope is for this “fluid data” to be utilised going forward so that analytics can be used by tutors to provide better feedback to students. Tutors can also monitor how resources are being downloaded and tailor their courses accordingly. Data can be used to monitor how engaged the student is and how likely they are to drop out.

Ethics and “gaming” the system

One issue concerns whether students will be aware of how their data will be used and utilised by institutions. The other is, will students will be able to “game” the system knowing their behaviour is being monitored? As the report notes, a student could “take out 10 books to boost their ‘library engagement score’” or “repeatedly swipe their access card to increase their ‘campus presence’”.

But the report notes that the system will be re-adjusted for any “unusual spikes” in behaviour. So if the student is repeatedly taking too many books out of the library, the student’s score will diminish over time.

Data predicting future performance

Usually teachers predict their student’s grades in the future depending on how the student is currently performing. But increasingly, much of this decision-making could be left in the hands of the system as it will be able to tell “which students may not complete their degree on time or even hand in individual assignments”. But if the system flags up that the student is highly unlikely to pass the term, will this motivate the student to work harder or succumb to whatever the machine is telling them? Will the system just be a supplement to an already on-going dialogue between the tutor and student or will tutors take a step back and let the system basically keep the student updated on their performance?

Data will “follow” students throughout their lives

Most people that did poorly at school may have had a chance to put this behind them and do a “start-over” of sorts in adulthood. For instance, poor grades at school doesn’t necessarily prevent people from kick-starting amazing careers later on in life. But what if your poor performance follows you, not just through CVs but in pure data form? Now employers will have more in-depth information about a candidate to decide whether to hire them or not.

The report says:

“Individuals in education will produce new big data sets’, which will follow them throughout their education – from primary and secondary school and then onto the workplace – holding most details of their experience, engagement and performance in their studies.”

The Commission envisions a “LinkedIn+” style CV where a student will be able to collect all of the data that exists about them throughout their educational experience and present it “in a public record”. Even more worrying, they hope that this data will give employers the ammunition they need to “identify motivated students who might be more committed in the workplace”.

Out of all the findings in the report, this is probably the most worrying aspect. Humans aren’t stagnant and a difficult time at university does not mean they will not be able to succeed later on in life. But if this “data” will follow them wherever they go - they may never be allowed a do-over.


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