How well do you know your data?
The University of Edinburgh is home to cutting-edge programmes, research centres and institutes exploring the creation and consequences of data and digital technologies across society. It is, therefore, ideally placed to shape the research agenda and public debate about the uses of data, says Ben Williamson, Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education. “The Fellowship is a great opportunity to engage with developments and debates across fields and sectors”, he says, “from data science and creative informatics to critical data studies and the sociology of science and technology.” Dr Williamson’s research focuses on the points at which digital technologies, science and data interact with education policy and governance. These are critical areas in the age of Big Data, given its potential to influence policy and practice from pre-school to post-graduate settings. “Universities and schools have become increasingly data-driven,” Dr Williamson points out. “We need to look closely at how higher education has itself become data-driven, and identify the benefits of data use for students and staff, as well as the risks.”
One area that quickly raises complex challenges is the collection and use of students’ ‘intimate data’. That can raise significant anxieties, and measures are needed to ensure students understand the potential uses of their data collected from digital learning activities. “Services such as ‘learning analytics’ may help illuminate understandings about students,” Dr Williamson agrees, “but what happens when student data are repurposed for evaluative purposes and used to audit and rank courses and institutions?” Potentially, course-matching apps could help a prospective student find their ideal course. “Based on student profile data such as academic credentials and competences, graduate ‘talent analytics’ might even match them to the labour market too,” Dr Williamson adds.
Given its Data-Driven Innovation capabilities, Dr Williamson believes the University should look at creative ways to generate and engage with student data. Substantial gains could be made by challenging existing evaluative metrics and performance-monitoring technologies. “Data-Driven Innovation promises to bring benefits and value to government, citizens and businesses,” Dr Williamson declares, “but only if it is done in an ethically-informed way, and supported by in-depth research that challenges taken-for-granted assumptions about the uses and value of data.” This means asking difficult questions about data ethics, advocating for data justice and helping everyone to develop the critical skills necessary to understand the uses and abuses of data. “The last few years have clearly revealed how digital technologies that process data can be put to all kinds of commercial and political uses that don’t necessarily benefit citizens,” Dr Williams warns. “The DDI programme can address data’s positive potential, as well as its perils.”