Analytics is creating a host of issues for universities as they attempt to balance the need to understand their students better, with their students’ privacy, according to the IT director of the University of Derby, Neil Williams.
Williams told Computing that the university has a whole project dedicated to big data and business intelligence, an area that he said is becoming increasingly vital for universities.

“We spent the last 18 months bringing together our analytics systems to enable us to gain insight into certain trends.
“For example, if we have some segments of the university not doing well in certain areas we would look to see if there are any trends; is it because of their background in doing BTEC rather than A-Levels, for example, as their course wasn’t geared towards exams, or perhaps because nobody else in their family has done a degree,” he said.
If the university can better pinpoint where a problem lies it can more easily rectify the issue, said Williams.
Meanwhile, “learning analytics systems” enable the university to check whether students are only going to look at material the night before an exam, or whether they are constantly referring to material – the latter of which could illustrate that they didn’t understand the work properly.
In order to substantiate either of these claims, the university would have to cross-reference this data with other data sets, and this is something that the University of Derby is working on.
“We will have the data over time to check what it means for people who don’t ever go to the library – does it affect their results?” Williams explained.
But the university has to act in an ethical way with this data, and it faces different challenges to commercial organisations, according to Williams.
“The challenge for the university, which isn’t the same as for other organisations, centres on the ethics of such ‘Big Brother’ big data efforts. We are building capabilities but we have to look through these internally and ask what it means and go through the appropriate governance methods and understand what our stakeholders feel,” he stated.
“We have to make sure what we do is right. In contrast, if you look at a website and somebody is tracking what you’re looking at, you expect to then be targeted [with advertisements], but these [students] are members of our institution – not customers, so it’s a different situation,” he added.
The same principles need to be considered for university staff.
“How much do you monitor them? We don’t do that – but some organisations do,” he said.

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