Students of Australia, you are being watched. Not only in the lecture hall, but every time you log on, and even when you walk across the campus.
At the University of Melbourne, Wi-Fi routers track students as they move through the campus and leave a digital trail with their mobile phones.
And at the University of Sydney, students’ online activity is matched with their demographic background to predict who might drop out.
It’s called “learning analytics” and universities say it is the key to improving retention rates and the student experience.
“It provides valuable feedback and helps us understand how the design of our curriculum is working so we can modify it,” the University of Melbourne’s pro vice-chancellor of educational innovation Professor Gregor Kennedy said.
“There’s a benefit in simply understanding student learning processes and outcomes.”
Academics say that Australia is at the forefront of learning analytics and that the practice of gleaning and interpreting unprecedented amounts of student data is only going to become more common.
But privacy experts warn that universities need to receive meaningful consent from students before they collect the data.
Australian Privacy Foundation vice-chair Kat Lane said that universities had failed to justify the invasion of students’ privacy.
She said they needed to obtain meaningful consent from students. “Some students don’t want to be tracked. If people want to be tracked then that’s okay, but if they don’t, they shouldn’t be.”
At the University of Melbourne, teachers have been trialling a tool to see how students interact and engage with online content, discussions and assessment tasks.
So there’s no point pretending you’ve read your online readings when you’ve spent the semester at the pub.
“If there is a pattern of someone not clicking the link and accessing the material, we could have a problem here,” Professor Kennedy said.
When a problem is identified, teachers can intervene and provide extra support to student to ensure they remain engaged.
The institution is also using student’s mobile phone data to monitor traffic on campus.
Wi-Fi routers detect how many people are in different parts of the university, providing valuable insight into which spaces are working well, and which might be better utilised.
The University of Sydney is also trialling an initiative which uses the data created by students to identify those at risk of dropping out.
It uses their enrolment details, which could include demographic data, and information about their engagement during the first six weeks of semester.
This engagement data is based on student’s interaction with university resources such as videos, reading materials and responses to online questions.
Abelardo Pardo, a senior lecturer in the university’s school of electrical and information engineering, said the university was running a project with the University of South Australia, University of Technology Sydney and University of New South Wales where students receive personalised feedback based on this information.
He said this helped students understand their strengths and weaknesses.
“We believe this approach has significant potential to improve the student experience,” Dr Pardo said.
A similar initiative is taking place at RMIT, where a team monitors student information and reaches out to those who appear disengaged.
The team look at how often students are logging into the learning management system, submitting assignments and attending classes.
“They are often strong predictors of retention,” the university’s senior manager of language and learning Scott McDonald said.
At the University of Wollongong, the number of times you borrow a book might help determine whether you are an at-risk student. But the University stated on its website that it was very careful about the type of data it used.
“For example, from the library system, learning analytics uses a count of the number of times you used the library resources rather than data about the nature of the resources students’ access,” it said.
It said learning analytics was used to maximise students’ academic success and personalise their learning.