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About us Policy and strategy A Roadmap to Data Autonomy
Header image Data Autonomy

Feeling seen, heard and respected at a digital university

Date:20 June 2023
Author:Marit de Jong

Introduction: Situations

  1. By the eighth day of class, your professor can predict with 70 percent accuracy whether you are going to pass this course.

  2. When you want to register for courses, a robot advisor assesses your profile and nudges you to pick courses in which you are most likely to succeed.

  3. When you get to class, your teacher comes up to you and says disapprovingly: 'You were working on the assignment at 4 am...'

The first two situations are obviously not happening at the moment. At least, not at the University of Groningen. They are based on current or planned practices in United States education. The third one, however, could potentially happen at the UG right now. Indeed, Brightspace and Perusall give teachers insights into when and how students study. And if it turns out that highly personal data is predictive of student success, who can promise me that we will not end up in situations that resemble the first two cases described above? As a student, I am concerned.

We are facing a pivotal moment for the future of public education. It is time to take a step back and think seriously about our values and whether our data practices align with them. Autonomous individuals or institutions are self-governing, which is to say that they can incorporate their values and views into decision-making processes according to their will. So what does this mean for data autonomy? And more specifically, what does it mean from the perspective of a student?

Transparency and democratic decision-making
If autonomy requires self-governance, then we have to talk about transparency and democratic decision-making at the university. When I was a bachelor student, I had little to no idea about which data was collected and to what end. What I did know was that Perusall collected some kind of data on active reading time. So, when I came back from my lunch break and found that I left the assignment open, I panicked. Being left in the dark, I also started to guess about the workings of the grading algorithm, and adapted my way of studying to make sure I would pass. And while teachers and other people within our university must have had discussions on how and when to use the platform, as a student I never felt that I had a say. 

Now this leads me to what is probably a very straight-forward argument, but one that apparently needs to be made over and over again: we need more transparency and democratic decision-making on the collection and use of student data. If a platform like Perusall is used, we could ask students in the course feedback about the platform as well, not just about the teachers and content. When new data collection methods are introduced, we should make sure that it is clear how it works, who will store the data, what the considerations are, and include students in relevant stages of the decision-making process. 
So what would I say if I got the chance? What are things that I am concerned with as a student? 

1.  Informational self-determination
In 1983, Germany proclaimed the constitutional right to ‘informational self-determination,’ enforcing the idea that people should be able to decide themselves when and within what limits personal information should be communicated to others. Informational self-determination is now often recognized as an essential instrument for fostering the autonomic capabilities of individuals, which is necessary for sustaining a vivid democratic society. 

However, informational self-determination has been greatly threatened by the use of commercial EdTech platforms. Indeed, a global research from 2022 analyzed 163 EdTech products that were endorsed by 49 governments for children’s education during the pandemic. From these 163 platforms, an astonishing 145 (89 percent) “appeared to engage in data practices that put children’s rights at risk, contributed to undermining them, or actively infringed on these rights.” Dutch universities are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of using commercial platforms. They have adopted a collective approach in an attempt to regain control over educational data. Forming one front against Big Tech, it seems that they have successfully negotiated better data security and transparency practices. 

While it’s great news that educational institutions increasingly take on a critical stance toward commercial platforms, I think there are also important questions about data sharing practices within universities. When I study in my own time, is it appropriate that data is collected about my activities and shared with my teacher? It is difficult to design general rules here, because people differ in where they draw the line between different contexts. Some students might be okay with sharing their nighttime study activities with their teacher, while others are not. Or they might feel comfortable sharing this kind of information for the duration of one course only, because they want to get a chance to start over anew in the next block without risking prejudice on the basis of their past activities. Thinking and talking about these cases is important if we want to respect students’ autonomy. But it is also important because data collection practices can affect the way students engage in learning and educational relationships. After all, students might anticipate the sharing of their data beyond the current context and consequently become distant and risk-averse.  

2. Being seen and respected
Another concern I would raise is perhaps less thought of. I noticed that when I was using Perusall as a student, I felt… annoyed? Rebellious? It is hard to pinpoint, and it took me several years to find out what caused these emotions. I think I get it now. I felt disrespected as a person. There is so much more to me than my active reading time, the number of annotations I make, the number of times I open a document, the ‘likes’ I receive for my input. I am more than a set of data-points to be analyzed and optimized. I feel excited about things, I struggle on some days. I realized, finally, that I was upset because I felt I was being made into an object for a machine, while all I wanted was to be recognized as a subject and interact with other subjects. Even if this desire has nothing to do with (measurable) study success, it deserves to be recognized as a value that is worth pursuing for its own sake. After all, education is a human endeavor and data collection should serve humans, not the other way around. 

About the author

Marit de Jong
Marit de Jong


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