Student Consent in Learning Analytics: The Devil in the Details?

Prinsloo, Paul and Slade, Sharon (2018). Student Consent in Learning Analytics: The Devil in the Details? In: Lester, Jaime; Klein, Carrie; Johri, Aditya and Rangwala, Huzefa eds. Learning Analytics in Higher Education: Current Innovations, Future Potential, and Practical Applications. New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 118–139.



Few would contest the impact of technology on modern day society. There are, however, wide-ranging opinions and contestations regarding the social and ethical implications of the increasing entanglement of our lives with technology (Introna, 2017; Marx, 2016; Robertson & Travaglia, 2017). Introna (2017) suggests that “At the center of this technology/society interrelationship we find many complex questions about the nature of the human, the technical, agency, autonomy, freedom and much more” (para. 1). Central to our entanglement in this techno-societal complex is the issue of the use of personal data and the scope and limitations of individuals’ agency (a) to make rational, informed choices regarding consent to having their data collected, analyzed, and used (Prinsloo & Slade, 2015); (b) for freely gifting (Kitchin, 2013, p. 263) unrequested data in ways that suggest digital promiscuity (Payne, 2014); and (c) to negotiate terms and conditions around receiving benefits in exchange for personal data, in a phenomenon known as the “privacy calculus” (Knijnenburg, Raybourn, Cherry, Wilkinson, Sivakumar, & Sloan, 2017, para. 1). It is also important to note the increasing automated and directed surveillance of digital users without their knowledge or consent (Kitchin, 2013), which raises “unprecedented challenges to how we currently elicit, secure, and sustain user consent” (Luger, Rodden, Jirotka, & Edwards, 2014, p. 613). The Big Data revolution (Kitchin, 2014) with its accompanying generative mechanisms for extracting data “has become an idea with social and political power in its own right” (Robertson & Travaglia, 2017, para. 1). The reductive quantification of complex social phenomena and the combination of different datasets suggest the need to (re)consider the notion of consent, the scope and limitations of informed consent, in general (Wilson, 2017), and, more specifically, consent in the context of higher education.

As the volume, velocity, and variety in data have increased, institutions, including higher education organizations, are increasingly enlarging their capacity to facilitate the tracking of students on an unprecedented scale. As such, “The privacy and ethical issues that emerge in this context are tightly interconnected with other aspects such as trust, accountability, and transparency” (Pardo & Siemens, 2014 p. 438). In deciding whether providing individuals (i.e., students) control over their personal data is a “true remedy or fairy tale” (Lazaro & Le Métayer, 2015), we suspect that the devil lies in the details.

In this chapter, we provide a broad overview of ethical considerations in the collection, analysis, and use of student data before investigating specific issues surrounding and informing the notion and scope of student consent. We map a broad framework of considerations and consider the ethical implications of allowing students to opt out of all or some aspects of the collection of their data.

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