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Stanford Cyber Initiative Researcher Mitchell Stevens hosts Convening on Digital Academic Records

Mitchell Stevens' Cyber Initiative project, First Principles for Governing Academic Records in the Digital Era, led to a number of questions about how academic institutions use and gather student data. These questions prompted Mitchell and his colleagues to convene an Asilomar meeting with three themes:

Task group I: Research 
Educators are now obliged to continuously improve learning environments informed by systematic evidence. Digital technologies have brought many new mechanisms for producing, evaluating, and deploying such evidence.  Yet in order for relevant research to accumulate and develop into tractable insight, researchers must develop shared units of analysis and empirical and theoretical frontiers while safeguarding student privacy and discretion.
Task group II: Application
Advances in computational capacity and new data streams describing student behavior create extraordinary opportunities — even ethical obligations — to personalize and improve learning environments. While personalization has long been elemental to face-to-face teaching and advising, the use of algorithmic systems and predictive models through digital media brings capacity for personalization at mass scale. It also raises important dilemmas. What principles should educators apply when deciding who may know what about students?  What responsibilities does possession of this knowledge entail — for schools, businesses, instructors, and researchers? What sort of infrastructure is needed to realize the benefits of these technologies and ensure their appropriate use?
Task group III:  Representation
Traditional college records represent student accomplishments as quasi-public records called “transcripts." Students select courses while schools (and, increasingly, other kinds of organizations) control how evaluation is carried out and whether and how that evaluation is recorded into official documents. In light of exceptionally rich empirical information about educational environments, student behavior, and student learning now available through digital media, how is student accomplishment best and most ethically represented to others? What roles do students, schools, and other service providers play in deciding how myriad information describing students is related to official records? In an increasingly diverse ecology of educational provision, what makes a student record “official”?

The group's conclusions, soon to be fleshed out in whitepapers, were:
  • Student data collected into analytics programs should be thought of as a joint venture, where the students, institutions, instructors, and — where they are involved — third parties all need to have a shared understanding of how the information is used, including when it is developed as a revenue source for colleges or companies.
  • Data-analytics programs and products should be designed with "transparency," especially in cases where an algorithm in the analytical software makes decisions about what happens next to a student; those decisions should be explainable and appealable.
  • Educators using data analytics have a responsibility to take action based on what they learn from their data analysis, a principle that the group called "informed improvement."
  • Decisions and discussions about the ethical use of data analytics need to be under "continuous consideration" that, ideally, is embedded in an explicit governance process.
  • Colleges relying on data analytics, and particularly tools that use information to predict student outcomes, should ensure that students have "open futures." As Mr. Stevens put it: "Education should create opportunity. It shouldn’t foreclose it."



Inside Higher Ed article

Chronicle of Higher Education article

Conference website