Empowering Students in Open Research

Phil and I will be writing a twice-monthly column for the Chronicle’s new Re:Learning section. In my inaugural column, “Muy Loco Parentis,” I write about how schools make data privacy decisions on behalf of the students that the students wouldn’t make for themselves, and that may even be net harmful for the students. In contrast to the ways in which other campus policies have evolved, there is still very much a default paternalistic position regarding data.

But the one example that I didn’t cover in my piece happens to be the one that inspired it in the first place. A few months back at the OpenEd conference, I heard a presentation from CMU’s Norm Bier about that challenges of getting different schools to submit OLI student data to a common database for academic research. Basically, every school that wants to do this has to go through its own IRB process, and every IRB is different. Since the faculty using the OLI products usually aren’t engaged in the research themselves, it generally isn’t worth the hassle to go through this process, so the data doesn’t get submitted and the research doesn’t get done. Note that Pearson and McGraw Hill do not have this problem; if they want to look at student performance in a learning application across various schools, they can. Easily. Something is wrong with this picture. I proposed in Norm’s session that maybe students could be given an option to openly publish their data. Maybe that would get around the restrictions. David Wiley, who does a lot more academic research than I do, seemed to think this wasn’t a crazy idea, so I’ve been gnawing on the problem since then.

I have talked to a bunch of researchers about the idea. The first reaction is often skepticism. IRB is not so easy to circumvent (for good reason). What generally changed their minds was the following thought experiment:

  • Suppose that, in some educational software program, there was a button labeled “Export.” Students could click the button and export their data in some suitably anonymized format. (Yes, yes, it is impossible to fully de-identify data, but let’s posit “reasonably anonymized” as assessed by a community of data scientists.) Would giving students the option to export their data to any server of their choosing trigger the requirement for IRB review? [Answer: No.]
  • Suppose the export button offered a choice to export to CMU’s research server. Would giving students that option trigger the requirement for IRB review? [Answer: Probably not.]

There are two shades of gray here that are complications. First, researchers worry about the data bias that comes from opt in. And the further you lead students down the path toward encouraging them to share their data, such as making sharing the default, the more the uneasiness sets in. Second and relatedly, there is the issue of informed consent. There was a general feeling that, even if you get around IRB review, there is still a strong ethical obligation to do more than just pay lip service to informed consent. You need to really educate students on the potential consequences of sharing their data.

That’s all fair. I don’t claim that there is a silver bullet. But the thought experiment is revealing. Our intuitions, and therefore our policies, about student data privacy are strongly paternalistic in an academic context but shift pretty quickly once the institutional role fades and the student’s individual choice is foregrounded. I think this is an idea worth exploring further.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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