M.I.T. and the White House Ask: How Big Data Should be Used in Online Learning?

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an article this morning reporting on a workshop titled, Big Data Privacy, sponsored by M.I.T. and the White House.  M.I.T. is hosting the event because it finds itself sitting on a wealth of student data that researchers might use to compare the efficacy of virtual teaching methods, and perhaps advance the field of Web-based instruction.  As reported:

“Since its inception several years ago, for instance, MITx (M.I.T.’s open learning platform) has attracted more than 760,000 unique registered users from about 190 countries, university officials said. Those users have generated 700 million interactions with the school’s learning system and have contributed around 423,000 forum entries, many of them quite personal.

As researchers contemplate mining the students’ details, however, the university is grappling with ethical issues raised by the collection and analysis of these huge data sets, known familiarly as Big Data, said L. Rafael Reif, the president of M.I.T.

For instance, he said, serious privacy breaches could hypothetically occur if someone were to correlate the personal forum postings of online students with institutional records that the university had de-identified for research purposes.

“How do we set the boundaries, and balance the competing interests?” Dr. Reif asked in a public talk on Monday morning. “If you believe in the potential of digital learning, you have to care about the larger question: How can we harness this flood of data to generate positive change — without destroying the very idea of privacy? Parallel questions hover over our work in field after field.”

The issues being raised at this workshop are indeed important.  First, Internet-based online learning has been evolving for almost twenty years. There is already a good deal of research on the efficacy of online and blended learning environments including student and faculty interactions.  The introduction of massive open online courses, however, has generated a whole other level of scale that should be studied.  Second, the issue of privacy in the “online classroom” has had much less study and ethical issues rightfully should be examined.  Faculty and students need to have some say as to whether their course interactions are to be subjected to study either internally by administration or externally by researchers. On the latter issue, I would erred on the side of caution given the problems of privacy in commerce, social media, and government that have exploded in the past several years.



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