Unique Student Identifier (USI) and Big Data (the highs and lows)

A personal viewpoint

As of the 1st January 2014 all students, in the Australian VET sector, have been allocated a Unique Student Identifier. This code follows the student through their life and enables registered training organizations (RTOs) easier access to a student’s VET records and provides a simpler way for students to provide evidence for credit transfer makes it easier for students to transfer between training institutions (Mills, 2013).

But this got me thinking about Big Data and the relationship that this USI could offer in the future for RTOs. On the positive side there is the possibility of responsive training based on the needs of the client making it a system that can contextualize a learning journey through skill sets for the student to eventually achieve a desired goal, but it could also have a darker side the side where direct marketing and disreputable RTOs denying students training based purely on past performances in previous qualifications. Currently the USI does not store informal comments regarding student’s performance currently, but you have to ask yourself does that mean that the system will always stay like this, especially if K-12 students are eventually linked into it.

Education providers, if engaging in digital learning, have the ability to garner information about their clients easily through the technology that we use.  Every click a student does within a Learning Management System is recorded in the back end database, which will be archived along with the course in the VET sector for audit purposes. If utilizing social media every mention or micro-blog post can be saved to build a picture of the learners and their capabilities and needs. Now imagine this big picture that one RTO is able to build through, careful and critical analysis of the underlying data, an explicit picture of the student’s choices and make accurate predictions on the same students future study choices. If this data becomes part of public record then one bad grade somewhere in your past could in the future severely impact on what you are able to study in a dystopian world.

When you delve closer into USI there are some alarm bells that, for me, are set off. In the  Student Indentifiers Registers Privacy Policy (Office of the USI Registrar, 2014) it clearly states that the USI Registrar may disclose personal information to third parties, which is not limited to the list of third parties provided. Once these third parties have the information, then the student’s details are now no longer secure and safe behind the USI, a critical issue. Though there is a caveat on the USI site that it is finally the responsibility of the student to keep their login detail secure so no one can access their academic records if this data is shared with third parties, it begs the question what security measures are put into place by these other organisations and what data is actually being shared?

The Student Indentifiers Registers Privacy Policy (Office of the USI Registrar, 2014) clearly states that the content is held in a cloud computing solution, which adheres to the Australian Government Cloud Computing arrangements (Finance.gov.au, 2014). However, for me, personally there is also a big concern around security having all of the VET student’s qualification history in one place, no matter the security surrounding the system. Recently we have seen that big corporations using cloud computing systems have not been able to keep people’s personal data or content safe  such as Celebgate which saw celebrities iCloud accounts hacked in 2014 (BBC News, 2014). If this can occur to a high end security space then we do need to review this step into keeping the data in one repository held on a cloud based solution.

In all fairness the USI Registry System has been designed to keep training records and results safe, according to their website (Usi.gov.au, 2015) and goes on in subsequent pages to assure students that their information is safe. But the worry about security when it comes to student academic records is not an isolated concern for Australia but was raised in Education Week (Kamisar, 2014) that discussed issues around security for the organization inBloom which was touted as being the organization that would revolutionize personalized learning and target the needs of individuals based by synthesizing  student data. Admittedly there are marked differences between inBloom and the USI Registry System. One stand out difference is that currently the USI is not being managed by a private third party but by a Federal Government agency, however, given recent privatization and the push to consolidate services to reduce Government employment burdens it does beg the question if this will become outsourced in years to come.

Data mining is big business for organisations and more so the art of predictive analytics. Marketing departments in retails stores have been onto this for years as outlined by Duhigg (2012), so why wouldn’t the education industry want to start move into this field especially with a ready made supply of information. This could become a very lucrative market place with the value of this data being almost priceless, and we the consumers may never even realize that our information might have been shared. One must ask the question do students know that the information stored within the registry may be provided to third parties such as regulators, researchers current and former VET RTOs to name a few for a variety of purposes. When a student is enrolling is this ever explained in full to them and all of the ramifications, as in the current system you cannot enrol in a VET qualification without have a USI. I have to say that I could (if I wanted to) create a USI on the website (Usi.gov.au, 2015) and it would have been up to me to have explored all of the sub-pages to dig into what will happen to my results and who has access to my details, but I am not convinced that all of our VET students will do this.

We do not have a perfect VET system, but we are trying to put in place systems that will streamline workloads for organizations. But I do have to wonder who is looking out for the students? This blog post is really the start of my exploration into this very interesting topic and one that could have ramifications in years to come within all sections of the education industry.

References

BBC News,. (2014). Apple confirms accounts compromised but denies security breach – BBC News. Retrieved 1 May 2015, from http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-29039294

Duhigg, C. (2012). How Companies Learn Your Secrets. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html?_r=2&

Finance.gov.au,. (2014). Cloud Computing | Department of Finance. Retrieved 4 May 2015, from http://www.finance.gov.au/cloud/

Kamisar, B. (2014). InBloom Sputters Amid Concerns About Privacy of Student Data. Education Week, 33(15), 1-13. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/01/08/15inbloom_ep.h33.html

Mills, A. (2013). VET Transparency Agenda – what’s in it for me. Presentation, Training Providers Forum, Perth, Western Australia.

MindCET,. (2014). MindCET Snapshot #2 – Big Data & Education. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MrWQUMgcyk

Office of the USI Registrar,. (2014). Student Indentifiers Registers privacy policy v1.1 (pp. 1-8). Canberra: Department of Education and Training.

Usi.gov.au,. (2015). Skills Unique Student Identifier: Training Records and Results. Retrieved 1 May 2015, from http://www.usi.gov.au/Students/Pages/training-records-and-results.aspx

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