An Investigation of Privacy and Utility Tensions in Learning Analytics

Korir, Maureen Maina (2022). An Investigation of Privacy and Utility Tensions in Learning Analytics. PhD thesis The Open University.



Through learning analytics (LA), higher education institutions have put student data to various uses which aim to be beneficial for students, lecturers, and the institutions. Despite the potential benefits of LA, however, there are research gaps in understanding inherent privacy and utility tensions. Using four research studies, this thesis is an investigation of factors that contribute to these tensions.

An examination, using Delphi study techniques, of how LA experts (n=12) conceptualised privacy in LA and what they thought of as key privacy issues demonstrated a collective agreement on institutional responsibility, including to empower students to manage their privacy. As such, the findings exposed gaps between existing institutional applications of LA and the views of the experts.

A laboratory study (n=111) with follow-up semi-structured interviews (n=4) identified that students are not concerned about the use of their data for LA. However, knowing that student data could be shared with third parties evoked feelings of discomfort. The qualitative data suggested that students’ privacy concepts differed from those of the LA experts, highlighting a need to operationalise LA with a shared understanding of what privacy means for stakeholders.

Using an experimental design (n=447), privacy concern was further examined through the lens of students’ data use preferences. The findings suggested that participants’ data use preferences were not influenced by an awareness of the possible privacy risks and benefits of data use for LA. Consequently, other factors might influence students’ data use preferences. The qualitative data shed light on a “dual nature” to participants’ data use preferences, suggesting both support for and reservation about the use of student data for LA, the latter due to ethics and privacy concerns. Further examination using follow-up interviews (n=15) suggested a need to align institutional data use practices with students’ expectations.

Taken together, the research findings suggest that privacy in LA combines several concepts, expressed in different ways across stakeholder groups. To better understand students’ perspectives of privacy in LA requires unpacking the dimensions of privacy that contribute to students’ privacy concern, or lack thereof. Most importantly, while some uses of student data for LA do not concern students, other data uses might not meet their expectations. Taking steps to address these tensions will contribute towards ethical LA.

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