Ethics and Predictive Analytics in Higher Education

In March 2017, Manuela Ekowo and Iris Palmer co-authored a report for New America that offered five guiding practices for the ethical use of predictive analytics in higher education.  This kind of work is really important.  It acknowledges that, to the extent that analytics in higher education is meant to have an impact on human behavior, it it is a fundamentally ethical enterprise.

Work like the recent New America report is not merely about educational data science.  It is an important facet of educational data science itself.

Are we doing ethics well?

But ethics is hard.  Ethics is not about generating a list of commandments.  It is not about cataloging common opinion.  It is about carefully establishing a set of principles on the basis of which it becomes possible to create a coherent system of knowledge and make consistent judgements in specific situations.

Unfortunately, most work on the ethics of analytics in higher education lacks this kind of rigor.  Instead, ethical frameworks are the result of a process of pooling opinions in such a way as to strike a balance between the needs of a large number of stakeholders including students, institutions, the economy, the law, and public opinion.  To call this approach ethics is to confuse the good with the expedient.

Where should we begin?

An ethical system worthy of the name needs to begin with a strong conception of the Good.  Whether stated or implied, the most common paradigm is essentially utilitarian, concerned with maximizing benefit for the greatest number of people.  The problem with this approach, however, is that it can only ever concern perceived benefit.  People are famously bad at knowing what is good for them.

A benefit of this utilitarian approach, of course, is that it allows us to avoid huge epistemological and metaphysical minefields.  In the absence of true knowledge of the good, we can lean on the wisdom of crowds.  By pooling information about perceived utility, so the theory goes, we can approximate something like the good, or at least achieve enough consensus to mitigate conflict as much as possible.

But what if we were more audacious?  What if our starting point was not the pragmatic desire to reduce conflict, but rather an interest in fostering the fullest expression of our potential as humans?  As it specifically pertains to the domain of educational data analytics, what if we abandoned that instrumental view of student success as degree completion?  What if we began with the question of what it means to be human, and wrestled with the ways in which the role of ‘student’ is compatible and incompatible with that humanity?

Humane data ethics in action

Let’s consider one example of how taking human nature seriously affects how we think about analytics technologies.  As the Italian humanist Pier Paolo Vergerio observed, all education is auto-didactic.  When we think about teaching and learning, the teacher has zero ability to confer knowledge.  It is always the learner’s task to acquire it.  True, it is possible to train humans just as we can train all manner of other creatures (operant and classical forms of conditioning are incredibly powerful). but this is not education.  Education is a uniquely human capability whereby we acquire knowledge (with the aim of living life in accord with the Good). Teachers do not educate.  Teachers do not ‘teach.’ Rather, it is the goal of the teacher to establish the context in which the student might become actively engaged as learners.

What does this mean for Education?  Viewed from this perspective, it is incumbent on us as educators to create contexts that bring students to an awareness of themselves as learners in the fullest sense of the word.  It is crucial that we develop technologies that highlight the student’s role as autodidact.  Our technologies need to help bring students to self-knowledge at the same time as they create robust contexts for knowledge acquisition (in addition to providing opportunities for exploration, discovery, experimentation, imagination and other humane attributes).

It is in large part this humanistic perspective that has informed my excitement about student-facing dashboards.  As folks like John Fritz have talked about, one of the great things about putting data in the hands of students is that it furthers institutional goals like graduation and retention as a function of promoting personal responsibility and self-regulated learning.  In other words, by using analytics first and foremost with an interest in helping students to understand and embrace themselves as learners in the fullest sense of the term, we cultivate virtues that translate into degree completion, but also career success and life satisfaction.

In my opinion, analytics (predictive or otherwise) are most powerful when employed with a view to maximizing self-knowledge and the fullest expression of human capability rather than as way to constrain human behavior to achieve institutional goals.  I am confident that such a virtuous and humanistic approach to educational data analytics will also lead to institutional gains (as indeed we have seen at places like Georgia State University), but worry that where values and technologies are not aligned, both human nature and institutional outcomes are bound to suffer.

Using Analytics to Meet the Needs of Students in the 21st Century

Below is excerpted from a keynote address that I delivered on November 8, 2016 at Texas A&M at Texarkana for its National Distance Education Week Mini-Conference


Right now in the US, nearly a quarter of all undergraduate students — 4.5 million — are both first generation and low income.

Of these students, only 11% earn a bachelors degree in under 6 years. That’s compared to the rest of the population, which sees students graduate at a national rate of 55%. What this means is that 89% of first generation, low income students stop out, perpetuating a widespread pattern of socio-economic inequality.

Since 1970, bachelors degree attainment among those in the top income quartile in the US has steadily increased from 40.2% to 82.4 in 2009. By contrast, those in the bottom two income quartiles have seen only slight improvements: under an 8 point increase for the bottom two quartiles combined. In the US, a bachelors degree means a difference in lifetime earnings of more than 66% compared to those with only high school. Read more

Does Student Success start with Diversity in Higher Ed Administration?

Twitter has finally begun to add tools to mitigate harassment.

Harassment on Twitter has been a huge problem in recent years, and the amount of poor citizenship on the platform has only increased post-election. Why has it taken so long to respond? On the one hand, it is a very hard technical problem: how can users benefit from radical openness at the same time as they are protected from personal harm? In certain respects, this is a problem with free speech in general, but the problem is even greater for Twitter as it looks to grow its user base and prepare for sale. On the other hand, Twitter insiders have said that dealing with harassment has simply not been a priority for the mostly white male leadership team. Diversity is famously bad at Twitter. A lack of diversity within an organization leads to a lack of empathy for the concerns of ‘others.’ It leads to gaps in an organization’s field of vision, since we as people naturally pursue goals that are important to us, and what is important to us is naturally a product of our own experience. Values create culture. And culture determines what is included and excluded (both people and perspectives). Read more

Student Success and Liberal Democracy

The political environment in the United States has increasingly highlighted huge problems in our education system. These problems, I would argue, are not unrelated to how we as a country conceptualize student success. From the perspective of the student, success is about finding a high-paying job that provides a strong sense of personal fulfillment. From the perspective of colleges and universities, student success is about graduation and retention. From the perspective of government, it’s about making sure that we have a trained workforce capable of meeting labor market demands. For all of the recent and growing amount of attention paid to student success, however, what is woefully absent seems to be any talk about the importance of education to producing a liberal democratic citizenry. In the age of ‘big data,’ of course, part of this absence may be the fact that the success of a liberal education is difficult to measure. From this perspective, the success of a country’s education system cannot be measured directly. Instead, it is measured by the extent to which it’s citizens demonstrate things like active engagement, an interest/ability to adjudicate truth claims, and a desire to promote social and societal goods. Now, more than any time in recent history, we are witnessing the failure of American education. In the US, the topic of education has been largely absent from the platforms of individual presidential candidates.  This is, perhaps, a testament to the fact that education is bad for politics.  Where it has been discussed, we hear Trump talk about cutting funding to the Department of Education, if not eliminating it entirely. We hear Clinton talk about early childhood education, free/debt-free college, and more computer science training in k-12, but in each of these cases, the tenor tends to be about work and jobs rather than promoting societal goods more generally.

But I don’t want to make this post about politics. Our political climate is merely a reflection of the values that inform our conceptions of student success. These values — work, personal fulfillment, etc — inform policy decisions and university programs, but they also inform the development of educational technologies. The values that make up our nation’s conception of ‘student success’ produce the market demand that educational technology companies then try to meet. It is for this reason that we see a recent surge (some would say glut) of student retention products on the market, and relatively few that are meant to support liberal democratic values. It’s easy to forget that our technologies are not value-neutral. It’s easy to forget that, especially when it comes to communication technologies, the ‘medium is the message.’

What can educational technology companies do to meet market demands (something necessary to survival) while at the same time being attuned to the larger needs of society? I would suggest three things:

  1. Struggle. Keeping ethical considerations and the needs of society top of mind is hard.  For educational technologies to acknowledge the extent to which they both shape and are shaped by cultural movements produces a heavy burden of responsibility.  The easy thing to do is to abdicate responsibility, citing the fact that ‘we are just a technology company.’  But technologies always promote particular sets of values.  Accepting the need to meet market demand at the same time as the need to support liberal democratic education can be hard. These values WILL and DO come into conflict. But that’s not a reason to abandon either one or the other.  It means constantly struggling in the knowledge that educational technologies have a real impact on the lives of people.  Educational technology development is an inherently ethical enterprise.  Ethics are hard.
  2. Augment human judgment.  Educational technologies should not create opportunities for human beings to avoid taking responsibility for their decisions.  With more data, more analytics, and more artificial intelligence, it is tempting to lean on technology to make decisions for us.  But liberal democracy is not about eliminating human responsibility, and it is not about making critical thinking unnecessary.  To the contrary, personal responsibility and critical thinking are hallmarks of a liberal democratic citizen — and are essential to what it means to be human.  As tempting as it may be to create technologies that make decisions for us because they can, I feel like it is vitally important that we design technologies that increase our ability to participate in those activities that are the most human.
  3. Focus on community and critical thinking.  Creating technologies that foster engagement with complex ideas is hard.  Very much in line with the ‘augmented’ approach to educational technology development, I look to people like Alyssa Wise and Bodong Chen, who are looking at ways that a combination of embedded analytics and thoughtful teaching practices can produce reflective moments for students, and foster critical thinking in the context of community.  And it is for this reason that I am excited about tools like X-Ray Learning Analytics, a product for Moodle that makes use of social network analysis and natural language processing in a way that empowers teachers to promote critical thinking and community engagement.

The Trouble with ‘Student Success’

I’m increasingly troubled by ‘student success,’ and am even somewhat inclined to stop using the term entirely.

The trouble with ‘student success,’ it seems to me, is that it actually has very little to do with people. It’s not about humans, but rather about a set of conditions required for humans to successfully fill a particular role: that of a student.

So, what is a student?

A student (within the context of higher education, and as the term is employed within student success literature) is someone who is admitted to an institution of higher education, is at least minimally retained by that institution (many colleges and universities require at least 60 non-transferred credit hours in order to grant a degree), and graduate with some kind of credential (at least an Associate’s degree, but preferably a Bachelor’s). The student is the product of higher education. It is the task of colleges and universities to convert non-students into students (through the admissions process), only to convert them into a better kinds of non-students (through the graduation process). The whole thing is not entirely different from that religious process whereby an individual must first be converted from an a-sinner (someone who doesn’t grasp what sin is) into a sinner (they need to learn what sin is, and that they have committed it) in order to be transformed into a non-sinner through a process of redemption.

The language of ‘student success’ assumes that ‘being a student’ is an unmitigated good. But being a student is not a good in itself. The good of being a student is a direct consequence of the fact that being a student is requisite for attaining other higher goods. Having been a successful student is necessary in order to become a good worker. From the perspective of the individual, having been a successful student translates into being able to get a better job and earn a higher salary. From the perspective of a nation, a well-educated populace translates into an ability to meet labor demands in the service of economic growth. If this is the end of being a student, then, shouldn’t we talk about ‘Worker Success’? Replacing ‘student-‘ with ‘worker-‘ would retain every feature of ‘student success,’ but with the advantage of acknowledging that a post-secondary degree is not an end in itself, but is rather in the service of something greater. It would be more honest. It might also have the effect of increasing graduation rates by extending the horizon of students beyond the shoreline of their college experience and out toward the open sea of what will become something between a job and a vocation.

But I find the idea of ‘worker success’ still troubling in the same way as ‘student success.’ As with ‘student success,’ ‘worker success’ speaks to a role that humans occupy. It refers to something that a person does, rather than what a person is. As with being a successful student, being a successful worker implied having satisfactorily met the demands of a particular role, a set of criteria that come from outside of you, and that it is incumbant upon you to achieve. A successful student is someone who is admitted, retained, and graduates and so it is unsurprising that these are the measures against which colleges and universities are evaluated. A successful institution is one that creates successful students. Pressure is increasingly being put on institutions to ensure that students find success in career, but this is far more difficult to track (great minds are working on it). A successful worker is one who earns a high-paying job (high-salary serving as a proxy for the amount of value that a particular individual contributes to the overall economy).

What if we were to shift the way that we think about student success, away from focusing on conditional and instrumental goods, and instead toward goods that are unconditional and intrinsic? What if we viewed student success, not as an end in itself, but rather as something that may or may not help human beings contract their full potential as human beings? Would it mean eliminating higher education as it is today? I don’t think so. I’m not a utopian. I readily understand the historical, social, cultural, and material conditions that make school and work important. To the contrary, shifting out perspective toward what makes us human may in fact serve to underline the importance of an undergraduate education, and even of that piece of paper they call a degree. To the extent that an undergraduate education exposes minds to a world of knowledge, at the same time as it provides them with an opportunity to earn a good wage means that they are freed from the conditions of bare life (i.e. living paycheck to paycheck) and can commit their energies to higher order pursuits. Considered in this way, the importance of eliminating achievement gaps on the basis of race. ethnicity, gender, income, etc is also increased. For these groups who have been traditionally underserved by higher education, what is at stake in NOT having a post-secondary credential is not just a wage, but also perhaps their potential as human beings. At the same time as it make higher education more important, considering the student journey from the perspective of human success also opens up legitimate alternative pathways to formal education through which it is also possible to flourish. Higher education might be a way, but it might not be the way. And that should be okay.

I don’t know what this shift in perspective would mean for evaluating institutions. As long as colleges and universities are aimed at producing student-graduates, their reason for being is to solve a tactical problem — “how do we admit and graduate more students” — and they can be evaluated empirically and quantitatively by the extent to which they have solved the problem. The minute that colleges and universities start to reconceive their mission, not in terms of students, but in terms of humans, their success becomes far more difficult to measure, because the success of students-as-humans is difficult to measure. By thinking of education as a way of serving humans as opposed to serving students, our task becomes far more important, and also far more challenging.

But since when were the Good and the Easy the same thing?

Gender Differences in the Experiences of African American College Students

Christina N. Baker | Women, Gender, and Families of Color | vol. 3, no. 1 (2015)
http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/women_gender_and_families_of_color/v003/3.1.baker.html

Although women earn the majority of degrees across all ethnic groups (66% of Bachelor degrees, 72% of Masters degrees, and 67% of doctoral degrees), the gender disparity is greatest among African American students. Low college attendance and graduation rates of black men negatively impact opportunities for employment, earnings, marriage, and involvement in family life. This, in turn, has a significant impact on African American communities in general.

In “Gender Differences in the Experiences of African American College Students,” Christina Baker argues that the social and academic experiences of African American students contribute significantly to differences in educational outcomes of men and women within this population. Using survey data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshman, Baker examines how social support from African American members of the campus community and the college racial composition influence the educational experiences of African American women and men attending historically white selective colleges.

Key Takeaways

  • In general, co-ethnic support from members of the campus community (including interaction with peers and African American faculty members) may improve chances of academic success by providing social support specific to the needs of African American students
  • Black women are more likely to rely on co-ethnic support during college than are black men (including depending on someone of the same race at the college for personal support, taking classes with African American instructors, and being involved in a majority black student group)
  • The perception of a negative racial environment results in lower rates of satisfaction among African American females, but has no impact on the satisfaction of African American males.
  • Co-ethnic support has no effect on either college satisfaction or academic performance among African American males, but makes a significant positive difference for both satisfaction and performance among African American females

Challenges and Opportunities for Promoting Success among the Successful using Blackboard Analytics™

Presentation deck and abstract from my session at Blackboard World 2014. I also posted a few remarks on challenges associated with learning analytics at an institution with already high levels of student success HERE

Abstract
How can a university that already has very high levels of student performance and retention use data from its Blackboard® learning management system to identify effective teaching practices and at risk students? Based on experience gained from a year-long pilot of Blackboard Analytics™ for Learn at Emory University, this presentation will discuss (1) several unique challenges associated with the use of Blackboard Analytics™ to monitor high performing students, (2) the value of Blackboard Analytics™ as a data warehouse against which to run custom queries and apply more sophisticated data mining techniques, and (3) several preliminary insights obtained through the application of those techniques at Emory University.