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New grant query: Can libraries use student data AND respect privacy?

By Michael Perry, Data Assessment Librarian

Does anyone really care about their privacy?

It’s just one provocative question some of my university library colleagues and I asked when applying for a grant to study student attitudes about their personal data.

Here’s another: Is it OK to exchange a little privacy for an improved learning experience? If the answer to the first question is an emphatic “Yes!,” the answer to the second may not matter at all.

Thorny questions like these are sprouting up more and more in public debate, as issues of privacy cross into the realm of the digital services —from social media to library databases—that we opt into every day. To help us understand student perspectives, Northwestern University Libraries and seven partner institutions recently applied for a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This month we were awarded that $514,000 grant to conduct a three-year study of student perspectives about privacy, and how it can be used to customize their learning. Our group comprises academic institutions as diverse as Indiana University-Indianapolis and Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon, and together we hope to explore how libraries can maximize their services while respecting student expectations of privacy. (Our other research partners include the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Oregon State University, and Indiana University-Bloomington.)

The work has implications for services across all universities everywhere. For example, imagine if a digital course management system could take notice of students who go back to the same reading over and over. Are those students struggling to understand it? Would it be appropriate for the university to reach out and offer support?

The answers aren’t simple, and we hope this grant will give us the tools to decipher student attitudes and devise the best ways for us to offer service and support.

The Shared Value of Privacy
Privacy philosophy isn’t a new concern at libraries. Privacy issues are always on our minds. We’re champions of it, going back to the American Library Association Code of Ethics, first adopted in 1939, which lays out our “obligation to treat as confidential any private information obtained through contact with library patrons.”

It’s not just libraries that pay attention to this. After all, privacy could be thought of as an essential shared value—even a fundamental right—of our society. Most of us would say that privacy is worth protecting, and we fear the Orwellian prospect of “Big Brother” surveilling everyone, everywhere, always.

And yet, most of us seem to be getting pretty comfortable with unidentified entities capturing and analyzing huge amounts of information about us, gathered as we use the Internet. We accept it as part of the magic that brings us all the “free” services of the Internet and advertising that is customized for our individual tastes.

Which can be satisfying and convenient. But it can also create social media echo chambers that validate our beliefs and limit our exposure to new or challenging ideas. Data about your habits, activities, and preferences may be used in ways yet to be invented by companies that have good intentions for delivering you exactly what you want, or can be convinced you need.

Libraries as Privacy Protectors
When librarians thinks about privacy, however, we come at it a little differently than other institutional data-collectors do. Library organizations still hold those cautious and protective values, which we are now trying to reconcile with the ever-changing technological landscape. We remain committed, for example, to keeping information about your reading selections and library use confidential, of course. In addition, we here at Northwestern University Libraries want to ensure that members of our community understand how information about them is being collected and in what ways it might be used by others.

In that role, we are declaring it our ongoing mission to empower the members of our community to value and protect their privacy. We believe we can strengthen the community of students, staff and faculty at Northwestern by advocating for privacy awareness. For example, we can be campus champions for teaching people how to understand the privacy modes of modern web browsers, to downloading personal data captured by Facebook or Google.

It’s worth noting that our advocacy is part of a delicate dance in academic institutions. Higher education is embracing its own brand of online behavioral data-analyzing software, and librarians are nervous about that. Under the name “learning analytics,” institutions can measure, collect, analyze, and report data about student behavior in the interest of optimizing learning. For example, the data can be aggregated and made anonymous in order to answer questions like “Does the use of library databases increase the week after a librarian introduces it to a class?” No harm in that, surely.

A little farther down the path toward privacy invasion, however, we could ask, “Do students who spend more time searching library databases get better grades?” Sounds like a worthwhile question, but to answer it we’d have to collect (at least) which specific students are using databases, how much time they spend searching, what their grades are over time. And what if data gathering led to intervention? “Dear Johnny, don’t forget to consult some more scholarly resources before you turn in that paper—see a librarian, if you don’t know how.”

How Much Monitoring Would You Tolerate?
On the surface, it seems like some students would find it useful — even welcome — to have a university customize its learning assistance based on clues those students leave via their digital fingerprints. But it would involve extensive monitoring of their day-to-day behavior that could also reveal behavioral patterns, personal beliefs, and thought processes. Would today’s college students consider that kind of monitoring, if done by software, an invasion of privacy? Or just the way to get a better education?

That is the kind of research we hope the IMLS grant can help. If such gathering and analysis of student data is, for most, an acceptable reality of the information age, libraries must still be committed to educating students about the tradeoffs to be considered. We must also provide all library users a real choice to opt in or out of any online data gathering that tracks behavior information that can be acted upon on at the individual person level. With this commitment, the information landscape of higher education can distinguish itself from the world of social media and “big tech.” Whereas so much of the personal data collected online every day serves advertising and commercial ends, the focus of our work is not to sell products to our students but to enrich the learning and lives of our students themselves.