The ethics of learning analytics: initial steps

Col’s recent blog post has just started the necessary process of the Indicators project paying closer attention to the question of ethics when applied to learning analytics. The following are some of my initial responses to Col’s post and an attempt to invite some additional suggestions from other folk around the question

What are the ethical problems and considerations that should form part of work around learning analytics?

Feel free to comment.

Pointers to literature

I’ve tried a quick search for literature around ethics and analytics, but have not been able to find anything specific. Will need to search further, would welcome any pointers to relevant literature.

Web data mining and learning analytics

Col’s post seems to depend mostly on a paper that examines ethical issues in web data mining (Wel and Royakkers, 2004). While learning analytics could certainly be seen as a subset of web data mining, I’m not convinced that its not without its differences.

Especially given that the indicators project is currently focused on using usage data from institutional learning management systems. For example, Col uses the following quote from Wel and Royakkers (2004)

Web mining does, however, pose a threat to some important ethical values like privacy and individuality. Web mining makes it difficult for an individual to autonomously control the unveiling and dissemination of data about his/her private life

When a student is using the institutional LMS, is this really a part of his/her private life? Like it or not the institutional LMS is owned by the LMS, it’s being used by the student for learning and the purpose of learning analytics is to help improve that learning.

In addition, Col repeats the point that Wel and Royakkers (2004) make that there are issues when the data is analysed without user knowledge. Well, all LMS contain a certain level of “analytics” functionality, it’s built into the systems. I’m not sure that students are made explicitly aware of this functionality or how it is used. Is this a problem?

Internet research

The CMC/Internet research community is one amongst many various other fields/sub-groupings dealing with these sorts of issues. Herring (2002) offers a overview of this field, including ethical issues.

In summary,

  • ease of data collection creates ethical concerns;
  • participants may not be aware their actions are being collected and studied;
  • while identifies may be masked, some systems/archives and ways of expressing material may make it possible to identify;
  • there has been some debate (e.g. Mann and Stewart 2000);
  • some research advocate obtaining informed consent;
  • others suggest asking permission when quoting comments and/or masking identifying information;
  • informed consent can cause problems, especially with critical research;
  • need to strike a balance between quality research and protecting users from harm.
  • there are debates around the definition of harm.

This is a fairly old reference, likely to be more up to date information in more recent research publications and in research methodology texts. Need to look at those.

This chapter from the SAGE handbook of online research methods seems a good place to start.


Herring, S. (2002). Computer-mediated communication on the Internet. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 36(1), 109-168.

Wel, L. v., & Royakkers, L. (2004). Ethical Issues in web data mining. Ethics and Information Technology, 6, 11.

2 thoughts on “The ethics of learning analytics: initial steps

  1. beerc

    Most retailers use door counters and some even attempt to map customer movements around their stores. They use this data to generate marketing and product placement purposes and you do not see any warnings or disclaimers when you enter the stores. Is this an ethical issue? I doubt it.

  2. Pingback: The growth potential and ethics of academic analytics. « Col's Weblog

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