Near the start of the 2020 academic year, the University of Canterbury implemented a machine-learning based system, known as Analytics for Course Engagement (ACE), to aid the university in identifying and helping students that may be at risk of being unable to successfully complete their coursework. This year, the system was only used in the university’s 100 level courses, equivalent to Stage 1.
ACE initially gives each student an individual engagement score for each of their courses, on the basis of their engagement with a range of online learning materials on LEARN, a system similar to CANVAS, the University of Auckland’s online learning platform. Using these scores, a machine-learning algorithm is then trained to determine a band of engagement scores which is indicative of the level of engagement that is needed for the successful completion of a course.
Students whose engagement scores lie outside of this band are initially sent an automated text message encouraging them to increase their level of engagement. If levels of engagement do not change following their automated message, the students are directly contacted by a member of the university’s staff to discuss the situation.
Notably, ACE does not use the performance of students in assessments, such as mid-semester tests or assignments, to determine whether they may be at risk of failing their coursework, but rather focuses on their level of engagement with educational material.
When pressed about potential privacy concerns on One News’s Breakfast in July, Catherine Moran, the university’s Academic Vice-Chancellor, pointed to the transparency of the systems, noting that “students are fully aware of [ACE]” and that “ the [engagement levels of students] appear on their LEARN page”.
Though students have the ability to opt-out of viewing their engagement scores, they do not have the ability to opt-out of ACE itself. Regardless of the preferences of students, with respect to their ability to view their engagement scores, their scores are collected and monitored by the university.
The University of Canterbury’s implementation of ACE comes amid a recent growth in the use of digital surveillance within educational institutions across the world. During this time, a range of tools have been implemented to monitor student behaviour, both online and in-person.
In 2019, over 200,000 students across the United States attended campuses which used the services of Degree Analytics, a firm that analysed the Wi-Fi signals of students in order to flag unexpected behavioural changes, which, the universities contend, may be indicative of academic or personal issues.
Similarly, near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a range of Australian universities, including the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney, implemented an exam surveillance tool called ProctorU. Concerningly, ProctorU used the webcams of students in order to film them within their homes, as a means of deterring them from cheating. Some reports also indicate that the tool could be used to monitor the keystrokes of students.
In the development of such tools, privacy advocates and digital ethicists have raised concerns over both the normalisation of surveillance tools. Similarly, some educational experts have questioned the benefit of forcing the adoption of such tools, often at the expense of the independence of students.
Given that universities have, historically, served as an arena of intellectual and social development, both inside the classroom and out, the development of these systems appears to signal a desire by some administrators to impart a level of academic uniformity that is likely to ripple out beyond the confines of a university setting.