Keep students’ POV in mind when using student data

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As colleges continue to use student data to better target student supports and make decisions, they should keep in mind that students hold their own views about the use of that data, according to a new study.

Higher education institutions have over the years increasingly used student data for myriad purposes, from developing programs and services, to outreach and more. Student data has been especially crucial for colleges during the pandemic, from monitoring health on campus, to gauging how students are performing in a mainly remote learning environmental and what tools and services could help them overcome barriers.

And while students, in general, trust how their colleges use the data, they do have concerns. For example, students tend to be OK with colleges tracking student data for public health reasons during the pandemic, but they don’t want to see similar practices after Covid. And while students generally approve of using data intended to help them succeed academically, they wonder how the data may be used once they complete college. That’s according to a study by NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and New America, which partnered to better understand student perceptions of data use within higher education.

“Too often, we encourage colleges to use student data without properly considering student opinion,” said the study, which was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gauging students’ opinions

The two organizations interviewed students largely from private four-year institutions (67%), but they did include students from public four-year (28%) and two-year (6%) institutions. They asked students about their comfort levels on:

  • Data collected by a college vs. a third-party company
  • Type of data collected (such as data about student location, demographics, financial aid and academic performance)
  • Data used in Covid-related monitoring scenarios (i.e., social media monitoring, contact tracing mobile applications and proctoring software)
  • Data used for resource sharing and targeted outreach (such as notice about eligible scholarship opportunities, on-campus financial resources, social clubs and events, and tutoring and advising services)

The information was used to craft the following recommendations for colleges to follow in using student data:

Limit the use of location data. Students were generally uncomfortable with colleges using their location data. Before schools decide to use this type of data, they should discuss it with their students and have clear limits around that data.

Stay out of students’ social media. Most students seemed to think that monitoring student social media accounts, even for public health reasons, is a privacy violation. Some recognized the limitations of privacy expectations when students post information on their own accounts but felt it was a clear violation when students were sanctioned for behavior based on a social media post that was not their own.

Be mindful of data limitations. Data on demographics are often limited and only tell a small part of a student’s story. Pell-eligibility status, for example, is an imprecise measure of socioeconomic status. Students recommend sending outreach messages related to financial resources to all students and ensuring that a list of these resources is easily accessible online and streamlined with other support information.

Clearly communicate data policies. Students do not want to be surprised about how their college knows personal information about them. Institutions should clearly outline policies about data use and have a process in place that allows students to ask questions they may have about their data.

Use internal, university-controlled applications, when possible. Students were clear that when given the choice between their colleges and third parties, they trust their institutions to use their data responsibly. This preference is not limited to Covid health or monitoring apps; in general, students expressed skepticism about how third-party applications and companies use their data.

Practice proctoring restraint. Colleges should reduce the number of third-party proctoring companies with which students must interact and should be clear about what data they are collecting. Colleges should be sensitive about the fact that students might find certain types of information intrusive.

Avoid peer reporting structures. Students felt strongly that peer-reporting structures, or institution-sponsored “snitch” websites, were a bad idea. Even those who said that they understood the practice within the confines of a public health crisis expressed concerns. Institutions that use this approach may face a backlash by students who no longer find the campus culture welcoming, a consequence that may linger long after the pandemic has passed.

Train faculty and staff in student outreach. Students wanted to ensure that anyone who reached out to a struggling student was trained in responding to people crisis so they did not inadvertently make the situation worse. Ensuring that the faculty and staff responsible for reaching out to students have the right training is critical for effective intervention. For example, some students had a negative reaction to the idea of institutions using student financial aid data to send emails with information about the availability of emergency aid and hours of an on-campus food bank.

Provide training for faculty and staff about online expectations of faculty and staff. Laying out an institution’s expectations regarding students’ privacy is important. Ensuring that faculty and staff have clear expectations about what they can and cannot require of students and ensures student privacy is important. One example pertained to students feeling uncomfortable about being required to show themselves on video during a class, as they may feel embarrassed about showing their home or environment.

Ask students who should communicate with them. Students had strong feelings about who reached out to them to offer any kind of help. Aside from a general acceptance of advisers in this role, these feelings were not always consistent. Colleges should survey or conduct focus groups with their students about what messenger they feel is appropriate for different kinds of outreach.

Plan your messages thoughtfully. Students reacted negatively to messages that they viewed as paternalistic. They expected their college to treat them as adults. There are probably other messaging missteps that colleges could fall into as well. Colleges should test their messages with students formally (like in focus groups) and informally (in conversation) before they are used.

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