Datafication of Higher Education

Author: Joanna van der Merwe & Melissa Amoros-Lark

On the 3 November 2022 the  Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy launched the Building Trust in the Digital Era: Achieving Scotland’s Aspirations as an Ethical Digital Nation report.  

The purpose of this report is to advance the vision of an Ethical Digital Nation as set out in Scotland’s Digital Strategy (Digital Directorate, 2021). Compiled by the National Expert Group on Digital Ethics, it aims to develop strategic and actionable recommendations for an Ethical Digital Scotland, informed by the best available evidence, expert knowledge and insights from multiple publics and stakeholders.

The outcomes of this report highlighted the necessity to:
▪ Build public trust in the use of data
▪ Make more of our data available openly
▪ Increase community engagement and participation
▪ Engage with confidence on the international stage
▪ Realise digital rights
▪ Use Scotland’s data capabilities to address climate change targets.

In this context we were part of an expert group of academics from Scottish, British and European universities reviewed evidence from around the world and undertook a number of ‘deep-dives’ into sectors where digital technology is presenting ethical dilemmas, such as education and the gaming industry. In parallel, the charities Carnegie UK and Involve convened a public panel to explore key issues to feed into the report.

Our Case Study Datafication of Higher Education meant that we were able to ensure that the education sector is included in such a wide review of Scotland’s goals of becoming and ethical digital nation. We thought it was key to interview stakeholders that were actively working toward the protection of rights and ethics and involved in the education sector. We would like to thank the contributing experts for sharing their valuable time and opinions with us which were key to shaping the case study:

  • Dr Anna Wilson – Lecturer in Lifelong Learning at Stirling University
  • Dr Ben Williamson – Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital
    Education, University of Edinburgh
  • Mia Clarke – Vice President Education at Glasgow University Students’
    Representative Council
  • Dr Keith Smyth – Professor of Pedagogy and Head of the Learning and Teaching
  • Dr Michelle Olmstead – Director, Centre for Innovation Leiden University

The Building Trust in the Digital Era: Achieving Scotland’s Aspirations as an Ethical Digital Nation report has aimed to capture, interpret and synthesise evidence and real-world knowledge about digital ethics challenges affecting Scotland (albeit many are universal  issues), and to make recommendations to facilitate the government’s aspirations for an Ethical Digital Nation, as laid out in the Programme for Government. The recommendations given will help steer the Scottish Government on how to enact these practically. These recommendations have  been informed by the best available evidence, expert knowledge and insights from multiple publics and stakeholders. This paints a holistic picture of what an Ethical Digital Scotland will look like across all areas of society. It captures the hopes, expectations and concerns of the public and highlights how government, businesses, civil society groups and citizens can help to foster digital ethics and moderate harms.

The below is  the Case Study Datafication of Higher Education summary, the full case study can be found in Building Trust in the Digital Era: Achieving Scotland’s Aspirations as an Ethical Digital Nation report. 

Digital technology is being integrated into higher education at an exponential rate, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic moved teaching online causing severe educational disruption  cross the globe. If done correctly, these tools and data can change the way higher education is delivered, ensuring that it is flexible and accessible. It can also empower students and teachers by giving them insights into their learning and teaching practices allowing them to improve themselves and their learning/teaching journey. As well as using digital technologies to increase community engagement and participation. 

Conversely, if implemented without adequate ethical considerations this data can be used to create a model of education reliant on the constant surveillance of teachers and students rather than empowerment. Additionally, with data being used for profit motives, rights to privacy may be at risk and boundaries between personal and professional/student life blurred. 

This case study takes on two examples to illustrate the ethical issues involving technologies, namely digital proctoring and the video-conferencing platform Zoom, which are currently in use and have permeated the (digital) education sector. Given the datafication of education, reflecting on the ethical concerns raised with existing technologies is vital in assessing the risks and benefits involved in future technologies and the design of a national policy on digital ethics. 

Moreover, this case study contains insights from direct stakeholders such professors, student representatives and more. They touch upon themes such as awareness, data and digital literacy, the need to rethink education, new divides and barriers, funding, and power dynamics between institutions, staff, and students. 

To find out more about the datafication of higher education in Scotland click here to read the full case study.

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