Do keep an eye on students; but there are limits

There is little doubt that one of the key tasks for universities these days is to minimise attrition and ensure as few students as possible drop out. Every time a university admits a student, this represents a major investment – either by the students themselves, or by the taxpayer, or by other sponsors. That investment turns into a waste of money when a student does not complete the course.

All universities know that a key support for successful completion is close interaction with the student. The more a student is engaged, observed, assessed, spoken with, listened to, the more likely it is that the student will graduate. Class attendance and interaction with lecturers and tutors have particular benefits, raising the university’s awareness of what issues or problems a student may have.

One university appears to be contemplating another method of getting this kind of awareness: it is reported that Loughborough University is considering monitoring its students’ private emails. Apparently this involves looking for ‘negative comments’ as these could be an indicator of dissatisfaction or difficulty. Other universities are also looking at ways of perfecting their knowledge of at risk students, using and analysing data they have about them.

I suspect, however, that this kind of approach is both ethically questionable and doubtful as regards effectiveness. University studies are about intellectual engagement; on the other hand, the methods being used by Loughborough and others suggest it is about intelligence gathering by the university. Knowing your students is important, but this knowledge is secured through interaction rather than surveillance.

Maybe all this is a product of the checks and controls that universities themselves now face, with education viewed as performance. Some of that is inevitable and probably even right, but it should not crowd out properly understood pedagogy. And universities should avoid becoming their students’ Big Brother.

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17 Comments on “Do keep an eye on students; but there are limits”

  1. V.H Says:

    If the students and their parents only knew what you wanted. Meaning ‘you’ set the content and marking for 2nd level and you do it yourself. This current situation doesn’t work for anyone. The students don’t know what you want and you don’t know what you are getting, ergo cannot prepare.
    As to the monitoring, it won’t matter a damn. And quite honestly it seems to have been dreamt up by someone stuck in the early 90s.

  2. MunchkinMan Says:

    Sounds to me that some academics and university administrators with too much technology at their fingertips are too lazy to actually engage with those students who may be finding university life a bit of a struggle. Spying on them is not the way. Anyway,’Qui custodiet ipsos custodes?’

  3. Melanie King Says:

    Please see this press release on how Loughborough University are using Co-Tutor. We are in no way considering monitoring student’s private emails contrary to the alarmist conjecture of the Guardian journalist.

  4. Adam Ogilvie-Smith Says:

    It is worth noting that the action contemplated by Loughborough University would go further than the recently reported actions of the US and UK Governments. The Governments under their respective legislation (actual and proposed) are seeking the “communications data”, i.e. the sender, addressee, IP addresses etc (the “massage externals”) but not the content – unless a specific warrant has been obtained, which cannot happen without ministerial approval. The proposed action by Loughborough University would routinely investigate the content of the emails.

    • Melanie King Says:

      Adam, Please read the Loughborough press release on what is actually happening at Loughborough – It is no more sophisticated than any other (customer relationship management) CRM system in use at probably 99% of organisations.

      • MunchkinMan Says:

        Melanie, the relationship between a student and their tutor(s), and in fact their university, is far more complex than you are prepared to recognise. You’re lumping students and their welfare into the same category as customers? No wonder Loughborough is worried! Perhaps it should stick to what it is best known for these days: Olympic track and field. Leave the cerebral stuff to other better equipped universities who see the importance of student value and retention, and stop treating your students as ‘customers’.

        A word in the Irish language for ‘student’ is ‘mac léinn’, translated as ‘son of learning’. They’re students for God’s sake – get that clear and you’ll start thinking differently.

        • Wendymr Says:

          Take out ‘customer’ and substitute ‘client’, and you will find similar systems across health and social service organisations. I work in a social service non-profit and we use a similar system to record our interactions with clients – where clients interact with many different staff members across the time of their participation, we need a way of noting and sharing their activities, interactions, needs and concerns – and we are required to maintain this data by our funders. All such client data management systems also have capacity for recording confidential notes (sensitive information that can only be seen by the person entering it and someone with administrator permissions – usually a senior manager). It isn’t just helpful to staff; it’s helpful to clients also, as important interactions are recorded and they don’t have to explain their situation over and over again when meeting with different staff members.

          As someone who was previously director of an undergraduate programme, and thus responsible for student welfare in that department, I would have found a system such as this of enormous benefit in working with our students – particularly as my university (Keele) offered mainly dual honours programmes, so I had no idea most of the time what students in my programme might have been experiencing in their other department and simply didn’t have time to talk to other DUGs about every common student. This type of system would have made all of our jobs very much easier.

          • MunchkinMan Says:

            Sounds good then. Wow! Please give me more examples of the effectiveness of this client system as it applies to other learning environments such as, say, well, primary schools, secondary schools, heck, even creches. I hope that ‘This type of system…’ to quote you, makes the students’ learning experience (the real core of the matter here) ‘very much easier’? Where’s the evidence for that?

            Anyway, who exactly is your customer/client? Is it the student? Their parents (who might pay the fees etc)? The Government (who might pay the salaries? The tax payer (who pays for everyhing)? Future employers? Professional bodies?….who, exactly?

          • Wendymr Says:

            If you need examples: what about the student who is missing lectures/tutorials but because staff don’t talk to each other no-one knows there’s a pattern? The student who has had some personal issues, or a family crisis, and has told one staff member only? Even if details are not noted for all who can access the system to see, other staff members who interact with that student can be aware that there is a problem and contact the person who made the entry for more information if needed.

            Then come exam-time, what if the student has performed poorly and a case needs to be made to allow a repeat without penalty? Documented evidence of issues affecting performance through the semester is easily available – and when I was preparing cases for academic appeals committees this kind of system would have been very useful.

            Enough for you to let the sarcasm go and start seeing the real benefits here?

          • no-name Says:

            “what about the student who is missing lectures/tutorials but because staff don’t talk to each other no-one knows there’s a pattern? The student who has had some personal issues, or a family crisis, and has told one staff member only?”

            One might consider the possibility that such a student confided in only one staff member, one who was felt able to maintain confidentiality, without the desire for such information to be widely available. What if that student immediatly regretted mentioning anything?

            The advantages outlined in all arguments in support of this appear to relate to efficiencies that obtain for staff members, rather than the right to privacy of students. That there might be a pattern to a student’s absence is a given, since absence or presence is the student’s prerogative, and humans are not random — such patterns do not seem to be in the remit of academics to dwell on (beyond those whose research is into human behavior; those academics should have consent forms from students before embarking on the research, and the participating students should have the right to opt out at any point). More compelling arguments for such monitoring can be constructed for secondary schools, hospitals and prisons. A university should not be a panopticon.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    “Maybe all this this is a product of the checks and controls that universities themselves now face, with education viewed as performance.”
    This is certainly true, however in order to understand the Loughborough initiative – and the others discussed in the Guardian piece – is important to place it in the context of the Big Data Revolution Universities are just having a taste of the extraordinary possibilities, and hopefully will deal sensibly with the ‘scary ethics’ challenges that such a revolution presents.
    A good read on the topic is:

  6. daugmatic Says:

    How can universities proactively facilitate secondary schools with college readiness and preparedness programs in order to circumvent the college drop out rate for first-year students? Can similar proactive measures be taken in STEM and language arts disciplines by colleges for K-12 students?

  7. cormac Says:

    If I understand right, the system simply collates emails sent by a student to various staff members,enabling different staff to get an overview of the student’s problems….not unlike your family doctor’s files that keep track of your various visits to different doctors and hospitals.
    Could be useful if handled right..

    • no-name Says:

      “Could be useful if handled right..”

      The same applies to machetes and handguns.

      One might wonder who will monitor the system to make sure that it is used in no way other than is “right”. The sharing of privately divulged information among staff members is manifestly a violation of privacy. There is a prima facie argument that this violation of privacy is wrong.

      Who will ultimately be outsourced to host the accumulated private information? Will it be Google, Amazon or some other company that must comply with the US Patriot Act? (That many universities have already handed over their email systems to such companies does not constitute a rational argument to extend this to other private data.) If it is a company based in the EU, what happens to the data hosted if it is taken over by a US company? Is it not better to simply comply with the spirit of data protection acts and record as little information as possible in record systems that present inherent data security risks?

  8. Anna Notaro Says:

    As no-name writes above ‘a university should not be a panopticon’ and yet how can we think that universities can be immune from the consequences of the ‘big data revolution’ I mentioned in my comment above?
    In this article ‘The Coming Big Data Education Revolution’ the author argues that MOOCs are not a transformative innovation that most think. That honor belongs to a more disruptive and far-reaching innovation – “big data.” The prediction is that academia will apply to the learning process the same model used by Google – which gathers information through clicks on the Internet and uses this information to personalize advertising to individual users – to customize courses right down to the level of the individual.
    As you all might appreciate this discussion goes well beyond the still relevant, but familiar issue of the ‘student as customer’ and should be approached, without sarcasm, with a great dose of realism and deep understanding of this complex scenario. Phrases like Big Brother, panopticon assume a distinctive new resonance in an age when national security agencies break privacy rules..

  9. Delarivier Says:

    Students won’t use university email for anything but the most impersonal of communication if they think that it is under surveillance. Daft idea.

  10. cormacc Says:

    But is it under surveillance? That’s the question that hasn’t been answered, and the onus is on the university to make it clear. Is it that only student emails to staff addresses get picked up by the new system, or is it all emails from student accounts get picked up and are then filtered? The latter would be BB indeed…surely not

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