exploring the ethics of “learning analytics” in higher ed

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Image by xresch from Pixabay

As our Digital Education Leadership cohort considered ethical questions associated with learning technology, as well as what ethical standards are important to us professionally, I returned to Kant’s “Formula of Humanity” which states that we should always treat a person as an end in themselves, and never as a means to an end (Keirsten, 2019).

Certainly, the ethics of the commodification of people’s personal time and data has raised ethical concerns. Are organizations treating individuals as data quarries rather than individuals deserving dignity? One need only scan the latest headlines of a major news site or paper to find mentions of the ubiquity of Facebook’s collection of personal information (note – article is behind a paywall) or TikTok’s user privacy concerns.

While it is easy to point the finger at faceless corporations, digital citizenship requires each of us to consider how our own institutions of learning utilize the data of students, professors, and others. Are we treating people as an end in themselves, or as a means to some other end?

Fortunately, scholars have considered this question for some time, and in particular have considered the ethical implications of “learning analytics”, or the use of data collection to better understand and intervene in students’ lives to influence outcomes for both the student and the organization (Jones).

In the article “Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should,” Jones (2019) identifies potential ethical issues of learning analytics, including:

  • lack of consent;
  • removal of student autonomy;
  • utilization of the student to serve the organization’s role;
  • mission creep from observing students to observing faculty;
  • violation of long-standing expectations and norms between students, faculty, and staff;
  • lack of bright-line rules needed to form an ethical framework related to learning analytics; and
  • outside pressure from institutional stakeholders influencing autonomy of the institution itself regarding data collection.

One critic of collection said learning analytics “is a colonialist, slave-owning, corporatizing, capitalist practice that enacts violence, yes violence, against the sanctity of a learner’s privacy, body and mind,” (Jones, p. 420).

In interviews conducted with higher education library staff, potential solutions for some of the ethical questions raised included using Initutional Research Board approvals, narrowly tailoring data usage to answer specific questions, and allowing students to opt-out of data collection (Jones).

Jones suggests the following two questions should be at the forefront of this discussion:

  1. What are the justifiable ends learning analytics can achieve?
  2. How does the profession work toward those goals using ethically defensible methods?

While people will likely disagree about the most appropriate wording of the questions, I hope that everyone can agree questions do need to be asked and all stakeholders should have a voice.

While this post is directed specifically towards higher education, my colleague Yanira observed that in K-12 situations, perhaps parents need to be included as stakeholders, as well. This makes sense to me, as age can matter in legal agreements, waivers, etc. (though this post isn’t offering legal advice). I would also wonder out loud whether a school or agent of a school acting in loco parentis would have an obligation to protect the student, as well. Something to consider!


Burch, S. (2020, September 18). TikTok ‘disappointed’ with us ban on new app downloads, pledges to protect user privacy and safety. Yahoo!. https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/tiktok-disappointed-us-ban-app-152523208.html

Ives, N. (2019, March 19). Facebook axes age, gender, and other targeting for some sensitive ads. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-axes-age-gender-and-other-targeting-for-some-sensitive-ads-11553018450

Jones, K.M.L. (2019). “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should”: Practitioner perceptions of learning analytics ethics. Libraries and the Academy 19(3), 407-428. doi:10.1353/pla.2019.0025.

Kerstein, S. Treating persons as means, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/persons-means

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