Last week we noted the rapidly expanding availability of online learning opportunities, from free K to 12 lessons, to MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) offering certificates of completion, to pay-as-you-go secondary and post-secondary online credits. Distance learning was historically an ancillary service in the field of education, with the lack of regular contact between teacher and student often cited as its greatest drawback. However, technological advances are now allowing for real time multi-party dialogue to take place online, along with access to engaging learning materials in a variety of forms.

Online learning can enable teachers and professors to obtain immediate feedback regarding each student’s area of strengths and weaknesses in the course. The in-depth information regarding the problem-solving methods a student has employed to arrive at their answers, and how long they spent on a particular lesson or problem, can generate a far more comprehensive picture about each student’s cognitive abilities and learning skills than the traditional final mark.

The data trail left by participants can also be used to develop profiles of the kinds of students who are likely to be successful at a particular course in the future. Such data can inform decisions around program enhancement, future course offerings as well as marketing strategies.

Drafters of privacy and academic policies may understandably struggle to keep pace with the capacity of these technological advances. Educational institutions need to ensure notice of collection and use of personal information is given or informed consent is provided by students, depending upon the circumstances and the legal requirements in the particular jurisdiction. In some cases, it may be not be clear which laws apply.

Also at issue is the extent to which students who have grown up in the age of social media will assert a proprietary interest in personal information relating to their academic performance, cognitive ability and learning styles. Where third parties, for example recruiters of particular talents, are interested in access, we may see students consent to the release of personal information calculating that it is in their own best interests to do so. Educational institutions will play an important role in assisting students to appreciate the full consequences of their consent to release such personal information to government or potential employers.