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eLearning data disclosure potentially affects students’ marks

Andrew Bell and Tessa Pang report

The eLearning program used by almost all undergraduate students at the University of Sydney allows teaching staff at the University to view students’ past academic performance and login information, creating a risk of influencing students’ current marks.

While students may be under the impression that previous academic information is not shown to marking staff involved in their current enrolment, this isn’t the case. Staff members with access to the “grade centre” can see past academic performance, information which may influence expectations about students’ current performance.

Professor Philippa Pattison, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Education) told Honi, “Any staff member who is enrolled by the coordinator as a designer (usually the coordinator), instructor (usually lecturers) or teaching assistant (usually tutors or demonstrators) can view the grade centre.”

“If the tutor’s role includes marking, they will have access to all or part of the grade centre,” she said.

The grade centre contains all marks that pass through Blackboard or assignments that are submitted and marked through Turnitin. Since very few subjects are marked anonymously, the University cannot exclude the possibility that markers will peruse the data and be guided by it – especially when deciding between mark gradations.

Further, tutors with access to the grade centre will be able to see the last date the student logged onto eLearning.

Pattison told Honi, “A participation mark reflects a student taking part in a task rather than logging on to a system.”

While that is ideally the case, there is a constant possibility that frequency of logging into Blackboard would be taken into account by tutors in determining class participation marks. This would affect a student who downloads materials at the start of semester, and therefore doesn’t need to use eLearning, but is no less diligent than other students.

Even non-marking staff members have access to “de-identified, cohort level information on the make-up of the class…[which is] used to support student learning,” Pattison said.

Similarly, unit coordinators have access to students’ personal details entered on Sydney Student. This includes their name, date of birth, mobile number, home address, languages spoken at home and whether or not they are the first in their family to attend university.

While the utility of general information is clear, by allowing teaching staff to pitch their classes more accurately, this electronic system raises serious issues relating to the transparent use of student data.