Purdue University Has an Ethics Problem

It’s fair to say that Purdue University has sparked several important conversations in ed tech through their work on Course Signals. First, they pretty much put the retention early warning system as a product category on the map, conducting ground-breaking research and building a system that several major ed tech players have either licensed or imitated. More recently, they have sparked a conversation about the state of ed tech research and peer review as their more recent research has been called into question. I highly recommend reading the comment threads on these two posts to get a sense of that conversation.

Now I think Purdue may spark a third conversation—this time around the ethics of institutional learning analytics research and commercialization. Because there is no question in my mind that they have a serious ethical problem on their hands.

While I have no proof that Purdue is aware of the concerns that have been raised about the Course Signals research, I think it highly unlikely that they are unaware, after articles have been published in Inside Higher Ed and the Times Higher EducationThe questions have been out for a month now, and so far we have nothing in the way of an official response from the university.

That’s a big problem for several reasons. First, has have been mentioned here before, Purdue has licensed its technology to Ellucian for sale to other schools. In other words, the university is effectively making money on the strength of research claims that have now been called into question. Second, the people who conducted and published the research are not tenured faculty but non-tenurable staff, and they did so using institutional data the access to which Purdue ostensibly controls. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the researchers whose work is being challenged are effectively powerless to respond without permission and support from their institution. If so, then these people are being put in a terrible position. They are listed as the authors of the research, but they do not have the power that an academic Principal Investigator would have to be properly accountable for the work.

For both of these reasons, I believe that Purdue has an ethical obligation as an institution to respond to the criticism. Since they seem disinclined (or at least slow) to do so of their own accord, perhaps some appropriate pressure can be brought to bear. If you are an Ellucian customer, I urge you to contact them and ask why there has not been an official response to the challenge regarding the research. Both of the partners here should know that their brand reputations and therefore future revenue streams are at stake here. (I would be grateful if you would let me know, either publicly or privately, if you take this step. I would like to keep track of the pressure that is being brought to bear. I will keep your name and that of your institution private if you want me to.)

But I also think there is a broader conversation that needs to happen about the general problem. On the one hand, schools have an obligation to protect the privacy of their students. This makes releasing student success research data challenging. On the other hand, if the research cannot be properly peer reviewed because it cannot be shared, then we cannot develop confidence in the research that is coming to us. This problem is exacerbated when research is conducted by staff whose independence is not protected, and by the increasing tendency of institutions to commercialize their educational technology research and development work. There needs to be a community-developed framework to help facilitate the safe and appropriate sharing of the data so institutions can be held accountable for their research and the staff who conduct that research can be appropriately protected.


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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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