In my role as the library dean I have already been engaged with data-driven student success initiatives. We are still working to implement use of EAB on our campus. The company offers a set of tools that can track grades and registration (OK – we already do that). It also provides functionality that tracks visits to the tutoring center, the health and counseling centers, and can analyze how successful students are when they take specific classes and specific times. If you guessed that faculty are very wary of that last bit of analysis you’d be correct.
In a meeting to preview the product I asked how our data would potentially be used by the vendor, and I asked when and how students would be informed about data collection. I also asked whether students could opt out. It took until the next meeting to get some of the answers. I am fairly certain no one thought about including the students as participants who need to be informed and aware of what is being collected, by whom, and for what purposes. And for them to participate in decision-making about what is done with those data.
At the same time, I am aware that, in the library, we have collected data (statistics as we call them in our charmingly Luddite way). We count how many people come in and out of the building, we count how many times items have been used (and can separate out by groups, e.g., just undergraduates), how many searches and full-text downloads of online articles we have, how often study rooms are used, and that doesn’t even begin to include how much money we spend on a wide variety of resources.
There is something about all those data that I think (and continue to think) is important. At my library we do not connect any individual identifying information with all those data. We don’t swipe IDs (voluntarily or not) at the Research & Writing Help Desk. We don’t have people swipe coming in or out of the building. And we have not done any studies that tie online resource use to specific students or cohorts of students, their GPAs, or anything else.
It has been my great good fortune to have arrived at Keene State College at a time when we have strong and vocal advocates for open pedagogy. By now many readers will recognize names like Karen Cangialosi, and Robin deRosa, and if you don’t you should. Go read things they write! And put Sara Goldrick-Rab, John Warner, Maha Bali, Bonnie Stewart, and my new BFF Rajiv Jhangiani on the list (and so many more). I owe them and a much larger community a debt for educating me. There are too many blog posts to mention by a librarian I admire and respect, Barbara Fister . She is my conscience as I struggle to forge my way through these issues.
It was with all of this in mind that I attended a session at the recent ACRL conference. The panel reported on a report published November 2018. The Institute for Museum and Library Services provided over $90,000 in funding for The Library Integration in Institutional Learning Analytics (LIILA) project. Megan Oakleaf from Syracuse University was the project lead. The final report, Library Integration in Institutional Learning Analytics can be found here. The session provided a summary of the report.
I have not yet had time to read the full report. Ten pages are devoted to “obstacles” to library integration including privacy, confidentiality, risk mitigation, and organizational culture. And the presenters readily acknowledged that much of the conversation was likely to make people uncomfortable.
But what I found most disconcerting was what I did not hear. Among the obstacles to the library’s participation in using learning analytics I did not see or hear anything about the ethics of using library systems and services data in this way. I heard, “this is happening all over campus already, in the LMS, at the dining hall, in the gym.” That’s true – my ID is swiped ever day when I go to the gym and I’m not sure if it’s just like a tic mark on paper or it is capturing information on me (I suspect it’s the latter). Because my gym membership is now paid out of pocket by me and then reimbursed by my insurance company, at least they don’t seem to care if I use the gym or not. But someone does.
Still, I can’t get that saying about everyone jumping off a bridge out of my mind. I don’t think I am ready to get in line behind everyone just yet. One presenter mentioned now asking students who use the research help desk to swipe their ID and giving them the ability to opt out (they quickly offered that they have never had anyone refuse to swipe). If you were a first-year student and a reference librarian asked you to do something would you feel comfortable saying no? And is anyone explaining what will happen to the data, or provide some reasons why a person might want to opt out?
So I am struggling to try to balance an outright knee-jerk rejection of this whole project (am willing to be convinced) with the honest acknowledgment that (1) yes, we already collect and use data, (2) we are invested in helping students flourish, and (3) we need to be at the table for these conversations. I remain skeptical that the kinds of learning analytics we could collect will contribute to the “student success” conversation. I still think we should ask students early and often what we can do to help them succeed. And, as library manager, I recognize that I need to be able to justify or demonstrate the need for and efficacy of the considerable sums of money we spend on resources.
But I am also willing to admit that I am not sure this is a road I want to go down. I need to read the report in its entirely, think it through, talk about it with my colleagues. But just like the discussions around assessment are finally capturing the attention of the assessment experts, I wonder if our appetites for learning analytics will also provide ultimately to leave a bad taste in our mouths.
I am interested in your opinions and ideas.