A week after students begin their distance learning courses at the UK’s Open University this October, a computer program will have predicted their final grade. An algorithm monitoring how much the new recruits have read of their online textbooks, and how keenly they have engaged with web learning forums, will cross-reference this information against data on each person’s socio-economic background. It will identify those likely to founder and pinpoint when they will start struggling. Throughout the course, the university will know how hard students are working by continuing to scrutinise their online reading habits and test scores.
Andrew Keen, author of The Internet Is Not the Answer (2015) — a critique of the digital revolution and the way in which big data are being used to “monetise” human activities such as education — says the safeguarding of students’ privacy is becoming “an enormous concern”.
Keen, who predicts an imminent “reality check” on the impact of technology on education, says users are particularly vulnerable when consuming free university content from “Massive Open Online Courses”, known as Moocs, offered by institutions such as Stanford and Harvard. “Any time these services are free, eventually it’s the user who ends up paying,” Keen says.