The University is exploring innovative methods to use existing data to improve teaching and learning techniques.

Though the University currently retains student data, such as course grades, some officials argue the information should be more accessible to researchers and professors, who can in turn use it to improve the student experience inside the classroom.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, James Hilton, vice provost for digital education and innovation, said he is working with an informal group to draft a Standard Practice Guide policy to govern the use of collected data.

“We’ve been discussing the issues and principles involved and we’re in the process of drafting an SPG, which would actually be the policy,” Hilton said. “Once we have that drafted, we will re-shop it to get feedback on it to make sure everyone has a voice.”

Hilton said the SPG would largely focus on institutionalizing the process for accessing the data and opening up access for researchers to see sets of information already collected by the University.

“How would you go about gaining access to data to see, for example, whether or not there’s a correlation between the sequences of courses people take and their success in those courses,” Hilton said. “Those are two different data sets right now.”

Because the SPG only exists as a draft, Hilton said he could not provide specific policies that may govern the use of student data. However, he added that the University collects data in a similar way that commercial websites analyze online behavior and use it to customize an Internet user’s online experience.

“But what if, instead of using analytics to deliver advertisements, we use the same data-intensive approach to deliver learning objects, tips and assistance at just the right time as you go through the semester?” he said.

Hilton pointed to eCoach, a classroom data collection program that uses information collected from previous students’ responses to provide customized feedback to current students, as an example of how student data collection benefits both students and educators. Many large introductory STEM classes already use the program.

Currently, students who decide to participate in eCoach’s data collection complete a survey at the beginning of the semester that asks them a variety of questions about their expectations for the course.

The University of California, Los Angeles, for example, employs a policy to govern the ways in which the institution uses data collected during the admissions process, called the Policy on Access to Student Data. The policy allows access to student data on a case-by-case basis as determined by the registrar’s office. The procedure also provides provisions for researchers and student organizations accessing data as well.

Hilton said the University continues to explore new uses for data analysis. The important part, he said, is to do so with the right policies and procedures in place.

“The question my office has been looking at isn’t about collecting new data, it’s about using data already collected in new ways to improve learning,” Hilton said. “It’s about using data analytics to inform the classroom and doing that in ways that are secure and honor privacy expectations.”

However, some students and faculty have advised caution as the project moves forward.

Pharmaceutical Sciences Prof. David Smith, a member of SACUA, said while he believes the collection of data is a good initiative and can benefit students, he is wary of the quality of collected data.

During Hilton’s SACUA presentation in August, Smith raised concerns about how a policy of optional data collection would create an unreliable data set.

“If you only get people who respond who do very well or very poorly, you don’t have a good representative of the class and the data and interpretation would be skewed,” Smith said. “There has to be some way to determine if the data is really representing the group as a whole.”

LSA junior Michael Fakhoury said students providing data should have access to information about the process.

“If the University is using previously collected data, the students should be aware and consent that their information will be used as part of a study,” he said.

However, Hilton said the only way for the data collected by the University to be beneficial is if it is analyzed and used for research purposes.

“All of the data in the world, without asking questions or analysis, is useless,” Hilton said. “Large data sets render up a whole lot of questions. A lot of people think that data automatically answers a lot of questions, but it doesn’t. You have to figure it out.”

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