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How College Students Feel about Data Privacy and the Data Economy

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

Engineering and Public Policy Division Technical Session

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Paper Authors


Anindya Roy Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Dr. Anindya Roy is a Data Scientist at MIT Open Learning, where he works primarily with the Residential Education team. In his role, he wrangles data from multiple platforms related to online and on-campus courses at MIT, to inform administrative and research needs.

Anindya has a PhD in computational physics from Rutgers University, and has multiple years of research experience in computational materials science as a postdoctoral researcher at University California at Santa Barbara and at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). At JHU, he engaged in education research in addition to his materials science research.

His current interest lies in exploring the role of data, machine learning/AI, and the promises of emerging technologies in education.

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Aaron Kessler Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Dr. Aaron Kessler is Assistant Director, Learning Sciences and Teaching for Open Learning at MIT. In his role within the residential education team he is responsible for working with faculty and course teams in the development and research of online and residential courses that use educational technologies. He serves on the IEEE Industry Consortium on Learning Engineering Steering Committee and chairs the Design for Learning SIG. Prior to his arrival at MIT Aaron taught high school chemistry, co-developed and supported the implementation of online learning environments and a cognitive tutoring system, and taught preservice and inservice educators as an assistant professor of educational technology. At the core of all his work is supporting the development of instructional opportunities that provide learners the chance to engage in building deep conceptual understanding of content.

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Modern technological applications collect an unprecedented volume of data on their users. Studies on users’ attitude towards large-scale data collections have focused primarily on the privacy issues brought forth by such applications. Operationally, the mechanism of collecting and monetizing user data involves a complex set of steps hidden from the end users. Given this fact, it is important to explore the users’ place, specifically the role of engineering students, as consumers as well as creators. This work considered students’ role in this system not just as tech consumers with privacy concerns, but as participants in a data economy, where they provide their personal data, and/or use their technological expertise to build and maintain such systems.

This paper presents results of a survey focused on understanding college students’ perceptions of the data economy in the US. Subjects include 113 students from a technical university in the US (mostly computer science undergraduates) enrolled in a web development course. Two years of sampling indicates that most students have trepidations around data being collected, and have differential concerns about various kinds of personal data. For example, they are less concerned about educational data compared to their personal finance data. Students’ responses exhibited limited understanding of laws and technical processes that govern and facilitate data collection and use. However, they showed a nuanced understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of a data economy (e.g., most students pointed out pros such as availability of free products and services with cons such as biases in algorithms and loss of privacy). Surprisingly, despite the pandemic moving most students online between year one and year two of the sampling, little variation was observed from year to year.

Potential implications of these, and other, results and next steps for scaling the survey are highlighted. While this preliminary study is limited to one US university, it indicates the need to include topics related to data economy in the engineering curriculum. While the curriculum focuses on building their expertise in technology, it appears crucial to empower students with the knowledge of their broader role in the society as they are building technical systems.

Roy, A., & Kessler, A. (2022, August), How College Students Feel about Data Privacy and the Data Economy Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN. 10.18260/1-2--40786

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