Stanford University has launched a new resource that aims to offer guidance and set out best practices for the responsible use of big data in the higher education sector.

The project saw researchers from the university and Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit education consulting firm, bring together 70 experts from academia, government, nonprofits and the commercial education technology industry to debate some of the biggest issues surrounding the use of data in education, and how these could be tackled.

The result is a new website, Responsible Use of Student Data in Higher Education, which launched on September 6th and aims to clarify the often unclear rules surrounding what can and cannot be done with this technology.

Martin Kurzweil, director of the educational transformation program at Ithaka S+R, explained that many educational institutions are currently worried about potential issues with over-reach when it comes to using personal student data in their research, which leads to much of the potential of this information going untapped.

Many colleges and universities are therefore restricting researchers' access to student data as they are unsure how to remain compliant with pre-existing data protection laws, while at the same time, professors and students are freely downloading apps or using online education services that generate usable data, often without their schools’ knowledge.

"A lot of players are moving in to fill those gaps and it's not always clear how they’re using student data," Mr Kurzweil continued.

Therefore, the new resource should provide colleges and universities with answers to the ethical questions they face when dealing with big data analytics.

There are four central ideas that underpin the guidelines. The first is that all parties in the higher education sector, including students and technology vendors, recognise that data collection is a joint venture that needs clearly defined goals and limits.

Secondly, students must be well informed about what data is being collected and analysed, and be allowed to appeal if they feel analytics processes lead to misinformation.

The third principle emphasises that schools have an obligation to use data-driven insights to improve their teaching, while the fourth establishes that education is about opening up opportunities for students, not closing them.

Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist and associate professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, stated: "We're standing under a waterfall, feasting on information that's never existed before. All of this data has the power to redefine higher education." 

However, while the goal of researchers is to use big data to deliver a 'deeply personalised' learning environment that both keeps struggling students from dropping out and helps star performers excel, concerns have been expressed about the potential for information gathered from students to be misused.

As well as worries that sensitive data will be sold to third parties or stolen, there are fears that big data could have a negative impact on students' progress. For instance, if information derived from big data indicates that certain student profiles struggle in a core course, could students fitting this profile be prevented from taking the class or encouraged to take a different path, based solely on big data insight?