The syllabus as a student privacy document in an age of learning analytics

Date26 September 2019
Published date26 September 2019
AuthorKyle M.L. Jones,Amy VanScoy
Subject MatterLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
The syllabus as a student
privacy document in an age of
learning analytics
Kyle M.L. Jones
Department of Library and Information Science,
School of Informatics and Computing,
Indiana University Indianapolis (IUPUI), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, and
Amy VanScoy
Department of Library and Information Studies,
University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York, USA
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to reveal how instructors discuss student data and information
privacy in their syllabi.
Design/methodology/approach The authors collected a mixture of publicly accessible and privately
disclosed syllabi from 8,302 library and information science (LIS) courses to extract privacy language. Using
privacy concepts from the literature and emergent themes, the authors analyzed the corpus.
Findings Most syllabi did not mention privacy (98 percent). Privacy tended to be mentioned in the context
of digital tools, course communication, policies and assignments.
Research limitations/implications The transferability of the findings is limited because they address
only one field and professional discipline, LIS, and address syllabi for only online and hybrid courses.
Practical implications The findings suggest a need for professional development for instructors related
to student data privacy. The discussion provides recommendations for creating educational experiences that
support syllabi development and constructive norming opportunities.
Social implications Instructors may be making assumptions about the degree of privacy literacy among
their students or not value student privacy. Each raises significant concerns if privacy is instrumental to
intellectual freedom and processes critical to the educational experience.
Originality/value In an age of educational data mining and analytics, this is one of the first studies to
consider if and how instructors are addressing student data privacy in their courses, and the study initiates
an important conversation for reflecting on privacy values and practices.
Keywords Higher education, Ethics, Privacy, Learning analytics, Student privacy, Syllabi
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
The ever-increasing availability of data about peoples behavior necessitates continued
research and ethic discussion about the collection and use of the data and peoples rights to
and expectations of privacy. While the concept of information privacy is ambiguous (Solove,
2008), it is best explored in the domain of information science where issues of Big Data,
human computer interaction, and information ethics come together. This study is part of a
larger initiative to understand how information and data privacy is conceptualized in the
higher education environment. Information science scholars have begun addressing issues
associated with student data collection, analysis and interventions (see Britz and Zimmer,
2014; Jones and Salo, 2018; Rubel and Jones, 2016). Additionally, several IMLS-funded
projects are exploring the issue from the student and librarian perspective (see Syracuse
University, 2017; Trustees of Indiana University, 2018). This study takes an initial step in
exploring student privacy from the instructor perspective.
Universities rely on ubiquitous information technology to supports studentseducational
experiences and run highly bureaucratic institutions.These technologies create flows of data
and information that when captured and organized make it possible to develop novel
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 75 No. 6, 2019
pp. 1333-1355
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-12-2018-0202
Received 2 December 2018
Revised 22 April 2019
Accepted 22 April 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
The syllabus
as a student
insights.Some data practices are required by federallaw as part of the 1965 Higher Education
Act, but Picciano (2012) comments that over time higher education institutions have
developed near-optimal conditions for applying advanced analytic practices beyond simple
reporting needs. Where students are concerned, institutions document student life in digital
dossiers(Solove, 2004) as a prerequisitefor admission, and continueto do so as they progress
through their program of study. These dossiers are then augmented with the digital trails
studentsleave as they interact with and communicateusing institutionalinformation systems,
creating rich identifiable content and metadata about their student experiences, social
networks and learning behaviors as they do so (Dawson, 2010).
To support their students, especially online students, and capitalize on the array of data
they create, institutions are pursuing Next Generation Digital Learning Environments
(NGDLEs). NGDLEs join campus information systems, including the ubiquitous learning
management system, to develop infrastructures in support of interoperability,
personalization, data analytics, collaboration, and universal and accessible design (Brown
et al., 2015). While state-of-the-art technologies and data practices promise impactful
benefits, they also raise significant concerns regarding student privacy.
Aggregating data from campus information systems, as NGDLEs are built to do,
opens up access to sensitive types of student data, such as the following: academic,
biographic, demographic, financial, system tracking (e.g. logs), communications and more
(see Lederman, 2018; Patel, 2019; Young, 2018). Questions are still open regarding the ethics
of collecting these data, as well as analyzing and acting upon them to intervene in student
life. Although information policy and data ethics scholars have taken up these questions,
few institutions have; it is even less clear how instructors are discussing these issues with
their students, if at all.
With all these things considered, the researchers pursued answers to the following
research question:
RQ1. How do distance educators discuss student privacy in their syllabi?
Syllabi are central documents in the teaching and learning experience. They convey
instructorsvalues, their disciplinary conventions, emphasize the significance of the course
content, and map what students will learn and skills they will gain. Syllabi are also
instructional artifacts, detailing to students how to access content and use technologies, among
other things. Finally, they are policy documents representing academic rules at different
institutional levels (e.g. course, department, school, university), behavioral expectations, and
rights associated with state and federal laws. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that
instructors would discuss student privacy in syllabi, especially for distance courses.
2. Literature review
2.1 Intellectual privacy as a theoretical framework
This paper is theoretically framed by the concept of intellectual privacy (Richards, 2015). In
education, privacy plays a critical role in processes concerning intellectual contemplation,
idea generation and speech acts expressing ones thoughts and beliefs. There are various
facets of privacy that scholars have developed and defended expressing values of privacy,
including limiting access to oneself, the ability to control ones information, among others.
But where learning is concerned, intellectual privacy provides the protections necessary to
introspectively and socially engage in ideation; it provides a zone of protection(Richards,
2015, p. 95), specific places and spaces (real and virtual) in which to read, to think, to
explore(p. 97), which enable individuals to develop new and possibly heretical ideas []
before they are ready(p. 101) for public reception and scrutiny.
Intellectual privacy maps to concerns regarding student autonomy. Rubel and Jones
(2016) explain three reasons for which privacy is intertwined with autonomy. First, privacy

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