Educational triage in higher open education: walking a moral tightrope

Prinsloo, Paul and Slade, Sharon (2014). Educational triage in higher open education: walking a moral tightrope. In: E-learning at Work and the Workplace. From Education to Employment and Meaningful Work with ICTs. EDEN 2014 Annual Conference Proceedings, European Distance and E-Learning Network.


“Are students walking around with invisible triage tags attached, that only lecturers can see? Is this fair? Or is it just pragmatic? Like battlefield medical attention, lecturers’ attention is finite. And as class sizes and workloads increase, it is becoming scarcer” (Manning, 2012)

It is difficult to understate the scope and impact of the changes facing international and national higher education. Terms such as “disruption” and “innovation”, “disaggregation”, the “unbundling and unmooring”, “revolution”, and “crisis” have become endemic to discourses on the current and future states of higher education.

Against this backdrop, higher education institutions increasingly need to make strategic decisions regarding opportunities and alleviating risk. Risk within higher education both mirrors the broader societal dimensions of risk, and also presents additional aspects including the danger of obsolescence, changing funding regimes, the impact of technology on content, assessment and the role of faculty, the increasing diversification of forms of higher education and student populations, and concerns about student success and retention.

Within this context, higher education and in particular open distance and elearning (ODeL) increasingly relies on the harvesting, analysis and use of available data to inform strategic decisions regarding enrolment, marketing, curriculum development, the appointment of staff, student assessment and increasingly, strategies that inform initiatives to increase student retention and success.

The harvesting and analysis of student data therefore offers opportunities for higher education institutions to respond, timeously and appropriately, to identifying students who are at risk of failing or dropping out. The opportunities offered by learning analytics have, however, also brought to the fore concerns regarding a number of issues such as governmentality, data privacy, consent and other ethical issues and challenges.

The central question this paper poses is “how do we make moral decisions when resources are (increasingly) limited?”
This paper
• briefly introduces learning analytics as tool in the practice of educational triage;
• provides a short overview of the notion and practice of triage;
• discusses educational triage;
• assesses the potential of educational triage to responsibly and ethically respond to legitimate concerns about the “revolving door” in distance and online learning and the sustainability of higher education.

Though educational triage is germane to higher education within the discourses and practices of accountability, governmentality and the optimisation of resources; there is a dire need to explore the epistemological and ontological assumptions underlying and informing these discourses and practices.

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