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Take care when you type: Loughborough University weighs up benefits of email monitoring


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A prominent UK university is considering using email monitoring to seek out negative comments to determine if a student is at risk of dropping out, it has emerged.

Loughborough University is currently examining the possibility of implementing software that would collate data on students’ attendance and their email interactions with staff and tutors.

The proposed system, Co-Tutor, can be used to assess and monitor contact between students and tutors and plot attendance in tutorials, lectures and meetings. Researchers at Loughborough hoping to put Co-Tutor into action argue that checking emails between students and staff could be an invaluable channel to explore how well a course is received and the possibility of a student quitting the programme.

The head of the centre of engineering and design at Loughborough, Melanie King, told The Guardian that they aim to launch a commercially viable system next year. It is hoped that the implementation of this system could maximise on staff-student interactions to ultimately improve student experience overall.

However the use of monitoring does bring up uncomfortable ethical questions and uncertainties. Rob Englebright, programme manager at JISC, a committee that champions the use of IT in research, admits that this use of date could lead to ‘scary ethics’. His misgivings centre upon worries that after identifying students most at risk of dropping out, universities could cut support or stop taking on those in demographics most likely to drop out.

"If a student hasn't attended the library, do you intervene to prevent them failing, or in a cynical way do you say we will get rid of them early?" he asks.

Furthermore, questions have been raised about whether monitoring could present a threat to privacy.

Many students have emphasised the need for trust and confidentiality in student-supervisor interactions and are concerned that the use of monitoring could put such relationships under strain.

Simon Renton, the president of the University and Colleges Union, claimed that the UCU “would have serious concerns” about the use of quantitative date sources and adds that “such sources of data do not take into account a range of other contextual factors.” 

Amid fears that data collection could add to mounting pressures on students, Renton argues that email monitoring could lead universities to prioritise maintaining higher pass rates possibly at the expense of student happiness. 

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