Who Succeeds in Higher Education? Questioning the Connection Between Academic Libraries & Student Success.

This is a rough transcript of the plenary session presented to the California Academic & Research Libraries conference on April 15, 2018. The full paper will be published in the conference proceedings. All errors, typos, and misunderstandings are my own and do not represent the views of anyone else, including my past, present, and future employers.

My slides are here: https://tinyurl.com/zohzohcarlconf2018

Abstract: Many academic libraries are feeling pressured to join “student success” initiatives to collect and analyze data about students’ academic behaviors. In the library, this may result in tracking who uses group study rooms, who checks out books, who asks questions at the reference desk, and who participates in information literacy instruction. These data points are being used to prove that students who use the library are more likely to succeed in college; therefore, academic libraries are valuable. Such surveillance methods have been used in several high-profile studies, including those in the Association of College & Research Libraries’ Assessment in Action initiative. In this talk, I will question the role of academic libraries in student success and the methods being used to prove academic library value. What is at stake when academic libraries connect student library use with their academic performance? What are the implications for students’ privacy? Could tracking students in the library lead to self-censorship and intellectual freedom concerns? Most importantly, what do students really need from an academic library in order to be successful in college?


Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to be here to speak with you today. I am very grateful to the conference organizers, and I especially want to thank Miguel Figueroa and Charlotte Roh for their wonderful talks. I couldn’t have asked for a better keynote and plenary session to precede this one, and their presentations set the bar very, very high.

I am truly humbled by the amount of knowledge and experience in this room. I won’t pretend for a second to know more than any other person here. But I don’t think that I’m here to tell you about what I know. I believe I was invited to speak to you because of how I think about libraries, and how I see the role of academic libraries in student success.

Longview, Washington

My perspective on academic libraries is shaped by how I started my career. After receiving my Master’s degree in 2010, my first professional position was an adjunct faculty librarian role at Lower Columbia College in Longview, Washington. Longview is a small mill town an hour north of Portland on Interstate 5. It sits on the Columbia River which made it a bustling place for timber industry and port shipping in the early twentieth century. Now it’s well-known for its distinct and lingering timber mill smell, its annual Squirrel Festival, and the song “Longview” from the 1994 album Dookie by Green Day.

Students at Lower Columbia College

I tell you this because Lower Columbia College was the first college I ever worked for as a librarian, and those students shaped my empathy and my passion for higher education. They were the highlight of my day, every day I was there. Since then, I have worked for several other community colleges, and community college students continue to be the most interesting, driven, capable, and hardworking people I’ve ever met. According to the student demographics when I worked there in 2012, LCC students 60% of LCC students were part-time. 58% of them were age 25 or older. Half of them had children. And 72% of students were there for certificate programs and basic skills education– only 28% of students were seeking transfer degrees.

When I talk about college students with you, I don’t picture an 18-year-old person living in a dorm room at a sprawling university. In my head, when you say “college student”, I picture someone who works to make ends meet, who goes to school part-time, and who is raising a family.


Community College Educators

Whether or not you realize it, you are all community college educators, too. Of all students who completed a four-year college degree in 2015-2016, half of them had been enrolled at a two-year college at some point in the ten years prior to earning their degree.

Here in California, 29% of University of California graduates started at a California community college. The number goes up to 51% for California State University graduates.

Community college students are the people I care most about. When we talk about who succeeds in higher education, and how the library impacts student success, we have to remember that 40% of undergraduates attend community colleges. What are we saying about these students when we talk about library value?

What are we saying about students when we correlate their library use with their academic performance–for example, at the University of Wollongong Library, where students’ library use is tracked and correlated with their grades? Or the University of Minnesota, where students who used the library were found to have a higher GPA and a higher retention rate than those who did not? I think we’re trying to say, “The library is valuable.” I think we’re also saying, “Student success is determined by the actions of the individual student.”


Neoliberalism and Student Success

As I see it, the prevailing message about the academic library’s impact on student success is presented as an issue of individual choices made by students, a framework that aligns with a neoliberal philosophy of higher education.

To describe neoliberalism can feel like trying to describe the taste of the air. Put simply, neoliberalism is the political and economic theory that all human relationships are based on competition (Monbiot, 2016) and, thus, society functions most efficiently when working according to market principles (McCabe, 2015). Neoliberal philosophy was put into practice by policies enacted by Reagan and Thatcher, policies which eroded public goods and dismantled social welfare programs.

Neoliberalism also emphasizes the notion of scarcity: there is not enough for all of us. If you don’t get enough resources, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough for them, or you didn’t provide the right commodities demanded by the market (Palley, 2004). We see this every day in academic institutions where departments that do not produce enough deliverables or meet institutional outcomes are thusly cut, and their erasure is treated as part of doing business.

I like the way Karen Nicholson describes neoliberalism as “an invisible part of the fabric of our daily lives.” In addition to Nicholson, there are several other researchers in LIS/archives who are actively questioning the impact of neoliberalism and corporatization in libraries. I recommend reading Ian Beilin, Marika Cifor, Maura Seale, and David McMenemy, all of whom have written words more eloquent than my own.


Who Succeeds in Higher Education?

So when we measure the value of academic libraries by the individual success of students who use them, we are saying: the more students engage with the library, the more successful they are. This fits with the neoliberal ethos of meritocracy: we all have equal opportunity, everyone can succeed if they try hard enough, and success is determined by the choices you make.

We seem unwilling to admit that the architecture of privilege permeates all things, including student success. In higher education, we regularly discuss success as an issue of what students do with their time rather than just bluntly admit: success is systemic and structural, still more often defined by your zip code, income, race, and inheritance than almost anything else you do.

As you might have guessed, the title of my talk is a rhetorical question. If the question is, “Who succeeds in higher education?”, we already know the answer.

Success in higher education comes largely from identities that are ascribed to us, rather than what we have achieved. You are more likely to graduate from college if you are white, female, and have money. You are more likely to finish your degree if you go to school full-time and if you attend a selective institution with limited admissions. There are clear connections between wealth, privilege, status, and college completion.

If this is the case, why are libraries investing time and money to ask how library use impacts student success? If we already know who succeeds, why are we tracking students who use the library to prove they are more successful than students who do not?

No moment exists in a vacuum and nothing is inevitable. I am married to a historian of science and technology, so we have a lot of dinner table conversations about the importance of history. I believe that we librarians find ourselves in this difficult moment for two reasons.

One, the Association of College and Research Libraries is actively pushing a research agenda that promotes connecting the individual use of academic libraries to traditional measures of student success. Two, it is much easier to believe that students are responsible for their success than to acknowledge the more complicated intersections of privilege and oppression that determine who succeeds in our society.

What I’d like to do with my time this morning is attempt to convince you that

  • correlating student use of academic libraries with their individual success is a harmful framework;
  • the ACRL research agenda is driven by a neoliberal concept of higher education that pins student success on their choices as individuals;
  • if we are truly dedicated to the cause of student success, library money and library labor would be better spent focusing on what students actually need: financial support, food, and housing.

In order to better understand how we arrived at this moment, we need to discuss the Value of Academic Libraries Report.


The VAL Report

There’s a good chance that what you’re working on in your library right now aligns with the Value of Academic Libraries report, more commonly known as the VAL report, which was published by ACRL in 2010.

If your library has defined outcomes, created or adopted systems for assessment management, collected data about users beyond what is necessary to provide services, and/or connected library use to student engagement, retention, graduation, and academic performance, then you are practicing some of the 22 recommendations for demonstrating library value, as defined by Megan Oakleaf in her seminal report.

The overarching recommendation that libraries must “demonstrate value” by integrating with their institution’s outcomes assessment reporting might sound normal to us now, but at the time of its publication, the VAL report suggested practices and procedures that did not exist in many libraries — and, to be frank, that are still very new to many academic libraries around the country.


Assessment in Action

After the publication of the VAL report, ACRL received an IMLS grant to fund Assessment in Action, a three-year project to support data-driven assessment projects in academic libraries. AiA spawned three cycles of annual assessment projects at nearly 200 different colleges and universities, all of which defined research questions, created teams that included external partners outside the library, and collected data to study the impact of academic libraries on student success.

Many of the projects in Assessment in Action are interesting, well-researched case studies with deeply provocative questions about how students and faculty find value in academic libraries. Looking over the project summaries, you’ll see that many libraries undertook collaborative projects that engaged multiple campus units and took hundreds of hours to complete. Reflections from participants indicate that the most valuable part of their involvement in AiA was forming connections with partners outside the library, including institutional research offices and faculty in targeted areas like Composition and STEM.


Assessment in Action – Correlating Library Use with Student Success

AiA projects were and continue to be widely publicized by ACRL, and many institutions are attempting to replicate the data collection and analysis performed by AiA participants. From my perspective, AiA popularized and normalized the idea that it is not just acceptable but imperative for libraries to track how students use the library to prove the value of the academic library.

A few examples of AiA studies connecting library use with student success:

  • At Eastern Kentucky University Libraries, they found that students who accessed online resources through the library had a higher GPA than students who did not. They also found that students with a low (0-1 point GPA) had not accessed any online library resources.
  • At Nevada State College, they found a positive correlation between library use and GPA, between using online resources and retention, and between using the library and achieving good academic standing.
  • The Northwest Arkansas Community College Library found that students who attended information literacy sessions had better course-end grades and retained at a higher rate than those who did not attend the sessions.
  • At Colorado Mesa University, 92% of students who used the library’s research assistance were retained, compared with 83% of students who did not use the service.


From Case Studies to Generalizations

Each year, AiA published an executive summary of its findings. Both Year 2 and Year 3 reports highlight findings from studies like those just mentioned, emphasizing that students who use the library show better outcomes than those who do not.

But can we really make such broad generalizations from these small, localized case studies? And what does it really tell us that students who use the library are more successful? Doesn’t this just mean that students who use the library are probably more academically engaged generally? It is my hypothesis that students who use the library have the time to do so. Students who attend library instruction sessions? Well, they probably have pretty good class attendance overall, and there’s certainly a strong correlation between attending class and getting good grades in college.

I am not convinced that correlational studies do anything more than tell us what we already know: students who have the time and resources to do well in college do well. As I’ve said before, the library is not the thing that makes students successful–privilege is.

In their AiA project summary, Michigan State University acknowledged the complexity of isolating the library’s impact on student success.

Their team wrote,  

we do not have sufficient data to make generalizations. This project reiterates the difficulty in demonstrating even correlative relationships between library use and student success; while we can compare the numbers, there are many external and environmental factors for which we cannot account.


Learning Analytics

The transition from Assessment in Action projects and correlational studies to involvement in campus learning analytics initiatives is a short one. Learning analytics is described by Erik Duval as “collecting traces that learners leave behind and using those traces to improve learning.” In order to optimize education, learning analytics gathers data about student behavior and performance and makes such data instantly available to campus stakeholders through sleek online dashboards. Often times, students are not fully aware of the kinds of data being collected about them as they move through their days: they may be tracked when using Learning Management Systems (like Canvas and Blackboard), as well as when they swipe their ID cards at places like tutoring centers, the gym, and campus events, and now, in libraries, where circulation records and database logins can be transferred to institutional analytics repositories.

Collecting and analyzing information about students in higher education is not new; however, in the past, most administrators were stuck analyzing performance results like grades and course completion after the end of the term. Learning analytics offers educators the unique opportunity to act on real-time data during the term and intervene when students are flunking assignments or not attending classes, to offer “nudges” based on low performance, and to even predict what students’ outcomes might be.


Student Attitudes About Learning Analytics

How students feel about learning analytics is still largely unknown. Researchers in Australia conducted focus groups with students at a large metropolitan university and found that students were hopeful about how learning analytics could potentially help them connect with campus resources, but they were also concerned about being patronized and having their privacy invaded. One student commented that they felt “nudges” from professors through a learning analytics system could feel like a parent nagging them to do their chores. Overall, students expressed that they felt “uninformed and uncertain” about learning analytics and, after being given more information, they had concerns about how instructors’ access to analytics could result in preconceived judgments and bias that would impact their learning opportunities.


Oakleaf Attitudes About Learning Analytics

How does Megan Oakleaf see the future of learning analytics in libraries? In the VAL report, Oakleaf lamented the lack of individualized, user-level data about academic library use. She wrote:

For instance, until libraries know that student #5 with major A has downloaded B number of articles from database C, checked out D number of books,  participated in E workshops and online tutorials, and completed courses F, G, and H, libraries cannot correlate any of those student information behaviors with attainment of other outcomes.

Until librarians do that, they will be blocked in many of their efforts to demonstrate value…demonstrating the full value of academic libraries is only possible when libraries possess evidence that allows them to examine the impact of library user interactions. (page 96 of the VAL report)


In November 2017, Oakleaf presented at EDUCAUSE about the importance of integrating individual library user data into learning analytics dashboards. She included a screenshot from a campus analytics dashboard to show what it might look like to see a students’ interactions with the library–for example, what if faculty could see if students had attended information literacy instruction? I imagine that we could also include whether or not that student has logged in to our resources or borrowed materials. To be clear, this is not about research studies that look at student behavior in the aggregate — this is identifying student behaviors and interactions with the library down to the individual student, for other stakeholders on campus to see, analyze, and interpret.

Earlier this year, Oakleaf published her most recent article about libraries and learning analytics, in which she discusses the “problem” of privacy in learning analytics as requiring “a significant shift in professional library practice and a reconciliation between long held ethical positions and new imperatives to support student learning and success.”

To me, it is not a “significant shift” to collect and analyze individual, identifiable use of the library and its resources; it is a seismic pivot in library values and intellectual freedom principles. I do not believe it is possible to foster unhindered academic inquiry while, at the same time, tracking when a student logs in to online resources, how many books they check out, or how often they attend information literacy instruction sessions. Putting this data into dashboards accessible by faculty, administrators, student advisors, counselors, and other campus stakeholders is an enormous violation of trust.

Oakleaf is unwavering in her certainty that learning analytics is the future of library assessment data and, while she acknowledges concerns about ethics and privacy, her true concern seems not to be with students’ autonomy and agency–but with librarians’ hesitance to hand over library use data for input in campus-wide advising and retention systems.

As the author of the VAL report, a prolific scholar, and an iSchool professor, Oakleaf has enormous influence over the direction of the conversation around library assessment. This influence is evident in the latest ACRL research agenda, titled “Academic Library Impact” which was published in September 2017.


ACRL Research Agenda for Student Learning & Success

The ACRL Research Agenda for Student Learning & Success presents six priorities areas, one of which is including library data in institutional data collection. In that section, the authors propose the following suggested actions.

  • Know how other academic stakeholders are using learning analytics.
  • Research the safeguards needed to ensure student privacy or confidentiality.
  • Strategically collect data that can be integrated into learning analytics software.
  • Advocate for the inclusion of library data in the volumes of information collected from multiple systems within the academic institution.
  • Integrate library data into campus analytics components.
  • Work with stakeholders to statistically analyze and predict student learning and success based on shared analytics.


Why Resist Learning Analytics?

I am deeply troubled by the endorsement of pursuing learning analytics as part of an academic library research agenda for several reasons: one, it erodes student privacy and intellectual freedom, two, it takes away control and power from learners, and three, it conflates data tracking and surveillance with library assessment.

As Kyle M.L. Jones and Dorothea Salo explore in this month’s issue of College and Research Libraries, there are serious ethical considerations to incorporating library data in institutional learning analytics. They note that students’ intellectual freedom may be hindered if they believe the library is tracking what they search for and where they look for it. Additionally, there may be adverse psychological effects to knowing that library engagement is reported to faculty–how will students feel when faculty, after reviewing students’ low engagement with library resources, “nudge” them to use the library more?

April Hathcock, scholarly communications librarian at NYU and lawyer, says learning analytics are “a colonialist, slave-owning, corporatizing, capitalist practice that enacts violence against the sanctity of a learner’s privacy, body and mind. It is not in keeping with our professional values as librarians or educators.” She goes on to write that we owe learners the agency to be involved in decisions about learning analytics. “You can’t object to something,” she writes, “if you don’t know it’s happening to you.” I would add that you can’t ethically opt-in to something that hasn’t been fully explained to you, either.


Assessment =/= Analytics

Most importantly in my mind: analytics is not assessment. I think we have to take a step back and remind ourselves of this, because our current conversation reflects analytics as assessment. Some people think that I’m against assessment because I don’t support learning analytics, and that is not true.

It is my belief that the best library assessment initiatives ask questions with an inquiry mindset. Are we providing the right services at the right times? Do we have the right materials? Is the coffee shop open late enough? Are there enough outlets? (The answer is always no, on the last one.)

At the heart of true assessment is the willingness to change and make adjustments, to move the library to better fit the user. We do this all the time. We adjust hours for finals week, extend borrowing privileges for long-term research projects, and put furniture on wheels so students can move it around to suit their needs. We make the library better based on assessment results, which includes direct feedback from users. In return for being studied and observed ethically, transparently, and with care, people who use the library are given a better library to use.

In contrast, harvesting our users’ data from their EZ Proxy logins, their ID card swipes, and their circulation records, and then comparing it to their GPA, retention rate, or graduation rate, does little to nothing to help them, and it only serves us–provided the results are in our favor. I think York University was brutally honest in their project summary for AiA.

They wrote,

[Our] project found  that there is a positive correlation between library eResource usage and GPA. While the project did not result in data from which we would make changes to library or institutional practices, it does give the library a new way to communicate value.

The bottom line is this: ACRL tells us that we need to connect the dots in order to prove that libraries are valuable, and specifically encourages us to perpetuate the narrative that simply using the library has a positive impact on students.


But what if using the library hurt student success? Would we do anything differently?

Lise Doucette is a librarian and a researcher in Canada, and she has done some wonderful work studying library assessment. When I talked to her about my frustrations with correlative studies in library assessment, she smiled and said, “I always ask, ‘What would you do if the results were opposite of what you expected? What if library use was correlated with NEGATIVE student outcomes? e.g., the more students used the library, the worse their grades were?'”

It really made me stop and think when she said that, because I don’t think that anyone doing these kinds of studies has considered that result–what would you do if students who spent more time in the library, or logged in to more databases, were more likely to fail their classes? Would you limit their library use? And if the answer is you wouldn’t close the doors and stop students from coming to and using the library, and you would just keep doing what you’re doing, then what does this say about your beliefs? Your motivations? Your ideology?


The Stories We Tell

If we ignore all other factors and put student success squarely on what students do, it takes the pressure off of us as educators. If we believe that everyone is created equal and has the opportunity to succeed, then we can sit back and track success as data blips on a dashboard. Neoliberalism in higher education says: If you don’t succeed, it’s because you didn’t engage enough. Not because you were the primary caretaker for your family, not because you couldn’t afford tuition, not because you work two or three jobs, not because you were living in your car. In the neoliberal academy, we don’t have to question the way market forces might be harming or hindering our students’ success. Students simply succeed or fail at their own hand.

In the conversation about library value, we have chosen to believe in neoliberalism because it is easier for us. In this mindset, we embrace meritocracy (those who succeed do so based on their hard work) and stories of those who start at the bottom and work their way to the top. This is the same philosophy that says that students who attend information literacy instruction sessions, borrow materials, and use online resources will be more successful.

I’m afraid that the students who will suffer the most from this narrative are the students higher education was not designed to serve: students of color, queer/trans/gender nonconforming students, students who work, students living with disabilities, older students, and students with families.

I can easily imagine a scenario where we sit down those students and say, “Well, we’ve looked at the data, and other students in your situation did x, y, and z, and they were successful, so why haven’t you done the same?” For example, if students of color who ask questions at the reference desk are more successful than students of color who don’t, how long will it be until we recommend library use as the antidote to structural racism?

Ultimately I want the next ACRL research agenda to move beyond its current obsession with handing over data to stakeholders to instead study the impacts of poverty, housing insecurity, and hunger on student success. I want the ACRL research agenda to acknowledge that higher education replicates systems of oppression, including racism, heterosexism, transphobia, classism, and white supremacy.

To me, these are the issues that are at the core of student success, and we cannot expect our students to become wholly-realized citizens, to thrive, unless we begin to acknowledge the possibility that using the library is not the answer. “More library” will not feed them, house them, and pay their bills. “More library” does not equalize the terrible inequalities faced by our students. “More library” is not going to stop students from dropping out.


Why do students leave higher education?

In 2009, the non-profit organization Public Agenda interviewed over 600 young people with at least some college education to find out what kept them in college, or if they didn’t finish their degrees, why they dropped out. According to their results, the number one reason students leave school is because they can’t balance work and school at the same time.

When asked to rank various options for what colleges could do to retain students, the number one thing students wanted was financial assistance for part-time attendance. Other popular responses included adding more evening and weekend classes, cutting the cost of college overall, and providing childcare.

And, I’m very sorry to have to point this out to you, but not a single student in this study indicated they dropped out because they didn’t use the library enough.


Paying the Price

Sara Goldrick-Rab at Temple University has been studying housing and food insecurity among college students for years. In her 2016 book, Paying the Price, she argues that the prohibitive cost of college not only leads to low student success rates but even harms students by leaving them with insurmountable debt that follows them for the rest of their lives.

Her most recent study, released just this month, finds that 36% of college students were food insecure at some point in the thirty days before responding to the survey. Nearly one in ten students is homeless. Almost half of community college students say they struggle to pay for housing and utilities.

The University of California system has long been aware of food-related challenges faced by students. UCLA has had a food pantry in its Student Activities Center since 2009, which provides staples like peanut butter and oatmeal. A 2016 survey of 9,000 students in the UC system found that 40% had experienced food insecurity. In 2015, each campus in the UC system was asked to form a food security working group to establish food pantries and develop programs to meet student food needs, including education around nutrition, cooking, and budgeting for meals.


What Libraries Can Do

With this in mind, if libraries are truly devoted to student success, I would encourage us to look deeply at our communities and see how we can meet their needs. In all of our communities, there are students who need financial aid, food, and housing. Many libraries are already doing incredible things to better serve their campuses, and I think we can always do more of the following.

  • Provide spaces for students with families, including areas where children can play.
    • Portland Community College and Sacramento State are just two institutions of many that provide family study rooms equipped with amenities for children, including toys and games to keep children occupied while caregivers study.
  • Provide scholarships directly to students.
  • Eliminate late fines & review loan rules.
  • Textbooks. Ugh.
    • Required textbooks on reserve on critical for students who can’t afford to buy them. Maintaining a robust and accurate reserves collection takes a lot of labor, but has a huge impact on student learning.
    • Alverno College took the radical step of creating a textbook collection on open reserve. They spent about $6,000 and bought 300 textbooks. They found that their collection of 329 items circulated 1,126 times in the Spring 2017 semester.
    • We need to continue to be leaders in the conversation around low and no-cost learning materials, including open educational resources.
  • Technology
    • I love seeing the unique and creative items that libraries loan to students, especially high-demand technology items, like laptops and iPads.
    • The last library I worked at loaned out USB charging cables for Androids/iPhones and headphones, and those were in constant use.
    • One trend I’m particularly excited about is lending WiFi hotspots. Many public libraries already do this, but I think this is a great idea for academic libraries for students who do not have reliable Internet access off-campus.

But perhaps most importantly, we must continously ask our students what they need from us. Ask regularly, review their responses with care and empathy, and take action to meet the gaps in your community. You may not be the answer to student success, but you are definitely an answer.


Assessment. Success. Value.

So, let’s recap what we’ve discussed about Assessment, Student Success, and Value.

If you are doing assessment, do assessment. This means asking open-ended questions without an agenda to prove your value, and being willing to make changes to improve.

If you are interested in helping students succeed, find out what your students need and provide it.

When you prove your value, as you always must, have answers and data at the ready that are meaningful to you and to your institution. You should position yourself as best you can to decide how you will tell the story of your value.

If you are regularly collecting statistics and evaluating your spaces, programs, and services in a variety of ways, then you get to choose how to tell your story of your library’s value. What is it that you provide on your campus that no one else can? How are you critical to student success? My guess it’s hundreds of small things that you do every day, and honestly, some of these things are the hardest to quantify. Sometimes it’s having a stapler available ten minutes before a paper is due. It’s having bathrooms and tables and good lighting. It’s having well-trained, helpful library workers who maintain the stacks, answer questions, and support students.


Does Our Work Matter?

One of the saddest things I read in the Assessment in Action project summaries was this sentiment: We asked this question because we wanted to know if our work matters.

If that is your question, my answer is yes. Yes. I promise that you matter to your students, your faculty, and your campus. It’s your job to ask how you matter, and if you are doing the right things and enough of them.

It’s your job to meet the needs of your campus so well that you fill your campus with the wildest, loudest advocates. They should be there to sing your praises when you need them.

I also think we have to accept that all of this might not be enough.


Is It Enough?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe connecting individual use of academic libraries to student success, and feeding that data into institutional learning analytics dashboards, is the way that we will prove academic library value. Maybe our collections will flourish, and lost faculty and staff support positions will return to us.

I’m sad to say I think it’s more likely that the money that has left library budgets is gone, and it’s not coming back. Surveillance tactics will not save us. Handing over our data to institutional dashboards will not save us.

In her blog, Emily Drabinski recently pondered how librarians can reframe the terms of the debate around learning analytics. If student-level data determines resource allocation, and the library needs resources, how can we reject the system by which our funding is determined? She notes, correctly, that it is easier to say “resist!” but much more complicated to actually do so.

Drabinski asks:

What does that rejection look like if we were to reject it an organized way, in a way that reflected a meaningful we, rather than as single individuals taking loud public stands and then getting fired for it?


Using Our Voice

I am not going to tell you that the work ahead is easy or simple. There are large and powerful forces in higher education that want us to quantify and measure our work to prove our worth.

I had the opportunity to speak to you today, and I wanted to talk to you about this–about students, what they need, and how we can be there for them. And the next time you have the ability to organize, to speak together as a group, and to question how the way we prove our value might harm our students, I hope you do so.

I think Drabinski is right that this is not work we can do alone, and we need to organize ourselves and demand better from our institutions, including our employers and our professional associations. But I do think, at the very beginning of any resistance, there are individual voices looking for each other, hoping to find resonance and strength in community.

You are not silly, or stubborn, or impractical for valuing students and their privacy and agency. You are not unreasonable for thinking learning analytics is a load of nonsense, designed to serve a particular narrative about student success in higher education.

The first time you use your voice to speak out against the status quo, your words may waver. Your voice is not shaking from fear. It is power. And when your voice shakes, that is the moment you have to use it.

Thank you.


Photo courtesy of Iain Watts.



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Libraries & learning analytics: A brief history.

March 5, 2018 — Revised and updated from the original post on November 10, 2017.


A slide deck from EDUCAUSE made the rounds on Twitter last week, with many folks expressing shock about libraries & their involvement (complicity) in learning analytics efforts on higher education campuses. But this isn’t new. Academic librarians have been talking about using library data to prove library value for quite a while. Over the past decade, the conversation has been held hostage by one particular professor who has made proving library value the exclusive focus of her scholarly research agenda.

As the old saying goes, if you’re not pissed off, you haven’t been paying attention.

To me, these are some of the significant milestones in the conversation about libraries and their involvement in learning analytics. (Emphasis on “to me” — your timeline might look a bit different!)

Megan Oakleaf, LIS professor at Syracuse University, publishes the Value of Academic Libraries Report, which was commissioned by ACRL. The report suggests that libraries should track individual student behavior to demonstrate correlations between library use and institutional outcomes, such as retention.

Value of Academic Libraries committee is formed by ACRL Executive Committee.

ACRL is awarded a $249,330 grant from IMLS to fund Assessment in Action: Academic Libraries and Student Success.

2013 – 2016
ACRL runs three 1-year cohorts of AiA projects. Assessment in Action aims to teach academic librarians how to collaborate with other stakeholders on their campuses to measure the library’s impact on student success. According to the AiA website: “The projects will result in a variety of approaches to assessing library impact on student learning which will be documented and disseminated for use by the wider academic library and higher education communities.”

Spring 2014
Oakleaf teaches IST 600 “Academic Libraries: Value, Impact & ROI” at Syracuse University for the first time.

October 2014
Bell publishes “Keeping Up With… Learning Analytics” on the ALA website.

August 2014
Margie Jantti presents “Unlocking Value from Your Library’s Data” at the Library Assessment Conference. The presentation highlights how, among other metrics, the University of Wollongong correlated student performance with number of hours of using the library’s electronic resources.

December 2014
Lisa Hinchliffe and Andrew Asher present “Analytics and Privacy: A Proposed Framework for Negotiating Service and Value Boundaries” at the Coalition for Networked Information Fall Membership Meeting.

March 2015
Oakleaf publishes “The Library’s Contribution to Student Learning: Inspirations and Aspirations” in College & Research Libraries.

Jantti and Heath publish “What Role for Libraries in Learning Analytics?” in Performance Measurement and Metrics. The article describes how the integrated existing library analytics and student data (from the “Library Cube”) with institutional learning analytics efforts at the University of Wollongong.

June 2016
College and Research Libraries News declares learning analytics one of the top trends in academic libraries.

July 2016
Oakleaf publishes “Getting Ready & Getting Started: Academic Librarian Involvement in Institutional Learning Analytics Initiatives” in The Journal of Academic Librarianship.

I present “Can we demonstrate library value without violating user privacy?” at Colorado Academic Library Association Workshop in Denver.

Oakleaf secures nearly $100,000 in grant funding from IMLS for “Library Integration in Institutional Learning Analytics (LIILA)“. The full proposal can be read here.

January 2017
ACRL Board discusses “patron privacy” and if, as a core value, it conflicts with support of learning analytics. The minutes record: “Confidentiality/Privacy is in ALA’s core values, and the Board agreed that patron privacy does not need to conflict with learning analytics, as student research can still be confidential.”

Also at Midwinter 2017,  ACRL Board approves Institutional Research as an interest group to incorporate interest in Learning Analytics (but, notably, the Board did not want to name the group the “Learning Analytics” interest group). ACRL Board formally adopts the Proficiencies for Assessment Librarians and Coordinators which makes frequent reference to using learning analytics.

March 2017
Oakleaf et al present “Data in the Library is Safe, But That’s Not What Data is Meant For” at ACRL 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland.

April 2017
Kyle M.L. Jones and Dorothea Salo’s article, “Learning Analytics and the Academic Library: Professional Ethics Commitments at a Crossroads“, is available as a preprint from College & Research Libraries.

June 2017
Value of Academic Libraries committee meets at ALA Annual. The minutes reflect that VAL wants to distance itself from learning analytics, now that they have their own interest group.

September 2017
ACRL publishes Academic Library Impact, which explicitly advocates for working with stakeholders to “statistically analyze and predict student learning and success based on shared analytics”.

October 2017
Karen Nicholson presents her paper, “The ‘Value Agenda’: Negotiating a Path Between Compliance and Critical Practice“, at the Canadian Library Assessment Workshop in Victoria, British Columbia.

November 2017
Oakleaf et al present “Closing the Data Gap: Integrating Library Data into Institutional Learning Analytics” at EDUCAUSE 2017 in Philadelphia. The presentation seems to advocate feeding individual patron data into campus-wide learning analytics dashboards so that other campus administrators, faculty, and advisors can see student interactions with the library.

Emily Drabinski asks, “How do we change the table?” In her blog post, she wonders how organizing can help librarians build power to make change. “We need to reject learning analytics,” she declares.

Penny Beile, Associate Director of Research, Education, and Engagement at the University of Central Florida Libraries, publishes “The Academic Library’s (Potential) Contribution to the Learning Analytics Landscape” on the EDUCAUSE blog.

January 2018
April Hathcock responds to the ongoing learning analytics conversation with her own blog post about learning agency. Regarding the need to collaborate with students rather than simply surveil them, she writes, “Essentially, it’s the difference between exploiting a community to study and report on them versus collaborating with that community in studying their needs. It is the very essence of feminist research methods, rooted in an ethic of care, trust, and collaborative empowerment.”

March 2018
Community college librarian Meredith Farkas questions the value of learning analytics in her column in American Libraries.

Kyle M.L. Jones and Ellen LeClere publish “Contextual Expectations and Emerging Informational Harms: A Primer on Academic Library Participation in Learning Analytics Initiatives” in Applying Library Values to Emerging Technology: Decision-Making in the Age of Open Access, Maker Spaces, and the Ever-Changing Library.

April 2018
The Call for Proposals for the special issue of Library Trends about learning analytics and the academic library closes April 1. The issue will be published in March 2019.

Featured image by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

Have we confused surveillance with assessment of student learning?

Somehow I had been blissfully unaware of Respondus Lockdown Browser until last week, when several students came to the library asking if we had this software available on our computers. If you’re not familiar with this product, Respondus is one of several LMS-integrated cheating-prevention tools. In simple terms, it shuts down a student’s Internet browser while they are taking a test in an online class environment, such as Canvas or Blackboard. One of the students who asked about Respondus said something that raised the hair on the back of my neck.

“I need a webcam,” they said. “I have to take the quiz with my webcam on, and there can’t be any movement in the background.”

What the hell? I thought. What are they talking about?

Recording Students During Online Tests

After doing some digging through an e-mail chain, I found a message from the campus eLearning Administrator with instructions for students taking tests with Respondus.

You will be required to use LockDown Browser with a webcam which will record you while you are taking the three module tests. Your computer must have a functioning webcam and microphone. A broadband connection is also required.

  • You will first need to review and agree to the Terms of Use.
  • The Webcam Check will confirm that your webcam and microphone are working properly. The first time the Webcam Check is performed on a computer, Adobe Flash Player will require you to select Allow and Remember.
  • Next you will be asked to take a picture of yourself.
  • After that, you will be required to show and take a picture of a government issued ID such as a driver’s license with your picture clearly displayed. If you don’t have a driver’s license, you can use your student ID card with your picture clearly displayed.
  • Click “Start Recording” and slowly tilt/pan your webcam so a brief video can be made of the area around your computer. Make sure you show your desk, what’s underneath your desk, and a panorama of the room you are in.  (If the webcam is built into the monitor, move it around as best you can to show the areas described.)

As a librarian who cares deeply about student privacy, all of this makes me want to throw up. If I understand this correctly, students must:

  • Accept Terms of Use (which I couldn’t find on the Respondus website, so I’m not sure what, exactly, students are agreeing to)
  • Take a picture of themselves
  • Share their government-issued ID (which would include their date of birth, address, height, weight, and other personal details)
  • Share whatever is in visible around their desk and workspace which, if they’re at home, could include any number of extremely personal items.

Can we agree that asking a student to show “what’s underneath your desk” is particularly perverse?

But the benefits of this invasive procedure, according to Respondus, are numerous—easy to integrate with existing learning platforms, money saved on printing costs, increased efficiency, superior confidence in the accuracy of test results, and so on.

Beyond privacy, what are some other concerns? After some brief searching, I found a presentation from 2012 where two researchers at Central Washington University found that Respondus was incredibly easy to manipulate to steal student data—hopefully this has changed. The following year, the same presenter, Donald Moncrief, gave a follow up presentation about the exact methodology they used (which they withheld the previous year, probably to prevent folks from following their steps).

My outrage is a little delayed. Respondus has been in business for ten years. Their website boasts that their software is used to proctor 50 million exams annually and they work with 2,000 institutions in 50 different countries. But here I am, angry as ever, concerned that educators have gotten carried away with a technology without considering its implications. And, as usual, my gripe is about assessment.

What are we really measuring?

Respondus offers regular training webinars for instructors. Here are the outcomes for an upcoming webinar:

Each training will cover, from the instructor perspective:

  • How to use LockDown Browser to prevent digital cheating in proctored testing environments
  • How use Respondus Monitor in non-proctored environments, to protect exam integrity and confirm student identity
  • How Respondus Monitor provides greater flexibility for when and where tests are taken
  • Efficient review of the assessment data collected, including student videos
  • Best practices and tips for success with both applications
  • A chance to ask questions

I am particularly confused by the portion in bold (my emphasis added). How is the surveillance data collected considered assessment data? Isn’t the assessment data the actual test results (e.g., whether or not students could meet the learning outcomes of the quiz or test)? I suppose if you saw clear evidence of academic dishonesty in the surveillance data (for example, the student had the textbook open on their desk but it was a “no book” test), then it would invalidate the assessment results, but it would not be the assessment data itself.

Maybe they’re just using “assessment” in an inaccurate way. Maybe it’s not a big deal. But I’m inclined to believe the word “assessment” has a particular meaning about student learning, and most accrediting bodies would agree.

Accreditation and surveillance

Colleges and universities almost never lose accreditation over facilities. You can educate students in a cornfield, in a portable building, in a yurt without running water or electricity—provided you have assessment data that shows that student learning outcomes were met for the program. You can’t award degrees without assessment data. You have to show that your students learned something. Seems reasonable, no?

So here’s my worry. Are we confusing surveillance with assessment data? Do we think that recording students during exams will appease accreditors? “Look, see! They didn’t cheat. They answered all of these test questions, and they got good scores.”

I understand the occasional need for a controlled testing environment, especially in high-stakes exam situations for professional certification (I’m think of the NCLEX for nurses, for example). I don’t understand controlled testing for formative assessment, especially for short quizzes in a first-year general education course. Even in a completely online course, I’m not sure I see the value in putting students through surveillance measures for quick knowledge checks of essential facts. When it comes to summative assessment of your course’s essential learning outcomes, couldn’t you meet the learning outcomes some other way that prevented simple cheating? What possibilities might open up if you invited your students to deeply process the material, connect to it in their own way, and show you the meaning they’ve made from it?

I think that there is no greater indication of an instructor’s values than how they spend time in a classroom. If what you truly value is assessing student learning in a tightly-controlled, surveilled environment—why not just take the quiz in a computer lab classroom where you can watch all students at once?

Is surveillance necessary for accreditation of online degrees?

My first answer to this question is, I’m not sure, and I’d like to learn more about this. I know that some fully online programs require students to take exams at proctored testing sites (e.g., by using a campus testing center at a nearby college or university). This practice is held up to accrediting agencies as proof of the program’s commitment to academic honesty. Of course, there is some healthy skepticism about this. In a 2011 article about online exam procedures, researchers suggested that requiring a once-per-semester proctored exam was a “a token effort to ensure academic honesty.”

I took a quick glance through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Postsecondary Accreditation Manual and I couldn’t find the word proctor anywhere in the document. Or the word cheat or the phrase academic honesty (the word honesty is used—to describe the governance procedures of the institution). While it is important to demonstrate student learning outcomes are being met through valid means (e.g., institutions need some reasonable assurance that students are doing their own work), I could not find evidence that this accrediting body specifically requires proof of proctoring or cheating-prevention. Does anyone know if other accrediting standards indicate otherwise?


Cluskey Jr, G. R., Ehlen, C. R., & Raiborn, M. H. (2011). Thwarting online exam cheating without proctor supervision. Journal of Academic and Business Ethics4, 1-7.

Moncrief, D., & Foster, R. (2012). Well that was easy: Misdirecting Respondus Lockdown Browser for fun and profit. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.cwu.edu/source/2012/oralpresentations/18/

Moncrief, D. (2013). Respondus LockDown Browser revisited: Disclosure. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.cwu.edu/source/2013/oralpresentations/73/

Postsecondary Accreditation Manual. (2013).Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Retrieved from http://www.acswasc.org

Respondus Lockdown Browser. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.respondus.com

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.com.