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Big Data On Campus
July 23, 2012 9:25 AM   Subscribe

Big Data On Campus (NYTimes) “We don’t want to turn into just eHarmony,” says Michael Zimmer, assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he studies ethical dimensions of new technology. “I’m worried that we’re taking both the richness and the serendipitous aspect of courses and professors and majors — and all the things that are supposed to be university life — and instead translating it into 18 variables that spit out, ‘This is your best fit. So go over here.’ ”
posted by OmieWise (23 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
yikes.
posted by millipede at 9:38 AM on July 23, 2012


“Kids who major in psych put that off, because they don’t want to take statistics,” Ms. Capaldi says. “They want to know: Does their boyfriend love them? Are they nuts? They take all those courses, then they hit statistics and they say: ‘Oh, God, I can’t do this. I can’t do experimental design.’ And so they’re in the wrong major.

and

In a meeting with an adviser, she detailed her interests. She likes science. She is family-oriented, interested in music, and good at writing. The adviser suggested a few possible majors, including psychology, family and human development, and creative writing.

These two examples seemed... well, rather gender-biased.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:38 AM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


“I’m worried that we’re taking both the richness and the serendipitous aspect of courses and professors and majors — and all the things that are supposed to be university life — and instead translating it into 18 variables that spit out, ‘This is your best fit. So go over here.’ ”

Well, you've provided students an environment where they are painfully, excruciatingly aware that they are on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. That serendipitous, whimsical experience you yearn for is dead, because you (as a member of the educational-industrial complex) have taken the headspace that students could use for whimsy and indeed the core tenets of a liberal education and instead filled it with an imminent and powerful dread of indentured servitude. If their attitude is one of "Look, I just gotta get through this", it's because it's an attitude that you've drilled into their heads, regardless of intent.

The fact that students are aware of this and just want to complete the experience as quickly and as painlessly as possible just means that they are wising up to the situation they find themselves in. Frankly, if you poll a random number of my peers in college, I'm sure each and every one of them would have some level of frustration about an adviser who is unavailable or incompetent -- recommending classes that are well outside the major or core curriculum, or making advisement for classes that are out of band with a student's current education.

Traditional roles and relationships in campuses that I've attended are breaking down, and it's affecting the quality of education of those schools and universities. In my view, I can break it down into the following reasons:

(a) there are too few staff in critical roles, as above with advisers. My current one has 80+ advisees. Extend that out to the teaching staff and you'll find that departments are being staffed with adjunct faculty or TAs for course teaching, and the actual faculty are spread too thin to be effective.
(b) there is currently too little analysis/ business intelligence being used by institutions to figure out what they're doing, how they're doing it, and where they ought to be going.
(c) there is little recourse for students who do have issues. Those who I've seen file complaints with deans/ academic review boards are often marginalized as complainers and awhiners before the first meeting, regardless of severity.
posted by boo_radley at 9:46 AM on July 23, 2012 [15 favorites]


Mr. Lange and his colleagues had found that by the eighth day of class they could predict, with 70 percent accuracy, whether a student would score a “C” or better. Mr. Lange built a system, rolled out in 2009, that sent professors frequently updated alerts about how well each student was predicted to do, based on their course performance and online behavior.
Eighth day? In a course that meets twice a week, that would be the end of the 4th week. I've usually given at least one major assessment and a total of 4 assessments by then. Students have essentially made their beds by this point.

I can probably guess who will get a C or better with 70% accuracy also. I don't see why this is impressive.
posted by King Bee at 9:50 AM on July 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, you've provided students an environment where they are painfully, excruciatingly aware that they are on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

Are you responding to "Michael Zimmer, assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee?" Because, you know, I don't think he has provided the students with that environment. He likely does not even have tenure, even as a member of the educational-industrial complex.

You will not hear me defend the status quo -- higher education is broken, largely, in my opinion, due to the systematic disinvestment of government money during the last 30 years, driven by the electorate's disinclination to spend any money at all until they see the bills for their and their children's "individual goods" coming due -- but attacking a junior faculty member who is lamenting the effects of the situation you are criticizing is not so productive.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:09 AM on July 23, 2012


GenjiandProust: "but attacking a junior faculty member "

I understand what you're saying in regards to his rank and power within the school. It is not the man himself, but the attitude that is part of the problem: "Oh, college is a wonderful experience where you'll make life-long friends.", "I just loved my college days", "I can always rely on my brothers for help, no matter what". I suppose that it's like my own father criticizing my bank account being nearly withdrawn when I got my first job in 93: "You make $6.60 an hour! When I was your age, I could live for a week on that!". That era is dissolving fast.

So if anything, it's urging Michael Zimmer, assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, to take honest stock of the situation around him. Any real invective I have is for the deans and administrative executives.
posted by boo_radley at 10:25 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


That era is dissolving fast.

It certainly will if we do nothing to stop it. I would rather not see higher education become a collection of glorified trade schools. Even if you believe that only "applied fields" should be taught (tossing out the Humanities as hopelessly antiquated), there is little reason for research at trade schools, and, without universities doing research that companies find to risky, we don't have much of a future. If you believe that the liberal education is worth something, then the situation is worse.

So, what to do? Accept that education is a common good and fund it accordingly. Understand that people, even if they don't get a "useful degree," may produce something that is valuable to you. Break the cycle of students chasing after "best schools" overvaluing things like athletics programs and new dorms by cutting down "best program" lists (which exist to sell magazines). Use technology as an adjunct to teaching rather than a way to replace faculty. Streamline systems to allow for reduction in the size of administration. Remove everyone with a business background from management or oversight of higher education. Business thinking has proven rather bad at business, and it works even less well for services which don't respond to business pressures or solutions.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:25 AM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well I'm glad someone noticed that traditional advising does not work for many people, but I'm not sure these software are the best direction.

:( I wish I had had better advisors in school.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 11:36 AM on July 23, 2012


I wish I had had better advisors in school.

Mine used the Myers-Briggs to identify my strengths and aptitudes. It turns out that people with "my" four-letter code excel at anthropology.
posted by Nomyte at 12:01 PM on July 23, 2012


I would rather not see higher education become a collection of glorified trade schools.

Too late. Far too late.
posted by Twang at 12:18 PM on July 23, 2012


Mine used the Myers-Briggs to identify my strengths and aptitudes. It turns out that people with "my" four-letter code excel at anthropology.

So... are you a kickass anthopologist now?

And no one really tried to identify my strengths and aptitudes as far as I know...
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 12:42 PM on July 23, 2012


I'm at a really small liberal arts college, and our advising works like this:
During your first year, your advisor is the prof teaching your first-year seminar (with about 18 students in the class). You see them 3 times/week all semester, so they get a good sense of your interests and any issues you're facing. Our first year semesters are common across professors, so everyone covers material from various areas in the courses so students get exposed to a little bit of different things. After you declare a major your advisor is a faculty member in that area, and you check in with them at least once a semester to go over your plans.

It's a lot of work, but I generally think it works pretty well, and does have that personal touch. However, I know from at least a couple of other areas (future dangerousness assessment, clinical psychiatric assessment) that, on average, clinical prediction is bested by actuarial prediction. We think we do a good job based on our own experience and feeling out the situation, but in reality acting on pre-programmed stats does a better job. This kind of article makes me wonder just how much of my experience is the same sort of thing.
posted by bizzyb at 12:51 PM on July 23, 2012


So... are you a kickass anthopologist now?

Man oh man, boy howdy!
posted by Nomyte at 12:54 PM on July 23, 2012


Hm. I take advantage of some of these things in the course I'm currently teaching - we have an online component, and I can see who downloads the readings, how much time they spend doing them, things like that (I still have some students who haven't opened the syllabus). But that's more about data gathering to allow instructors to be more effective teachers ... not about pushing or dissuading students towards different majors and courses. If I know someone's not doing the reading, I can be more pointed about requiring students to use supplemental readings to finish assignments, for example, to "gently nudge" people to get back on track.

I wonder how this program affects enrollment in different departments - I would imagine it sort of narrows down the set of courses students take a look at, to the detriment of those kind of fun random classes (ie - "African Americans in Children's Literature," which didn't fulfill any requirements, but was one of my favorite undergrad classes). I owe pretty much all my success to awesome personal advising, from professors who encouraged me to explore things and not to specialize too much (even at the expense of taking some classes in my major, anthropology. Kickass indeed!).
posted by ChuraChura at 12:58 PM on July 23, 2012


So, a Harry Potter-like sorting hat sort of thing?
posted by bz at 1:08 PM on July 23, 2012


So GenjiandProust already said what I was going to say with regards to blaming faculty for the funding issues, though I would add, blaming university administrators is also often misplaced, given that in most places the state government has the largest role in appropriating funding for higher ed, and often for setting tuition rates. But where is the ire directed at those institutions?

But a big gaping hole in this article, one that I never see acknowledged in any of these "what is wrong with higher ed" or "here's how to fix higher ed" articles is that there are a whole lot of kids in college today who are not ready to be there. They are not bad people, they're not necessarily too dumb, but they are probably woefully unprepared, un(or non)motivated, or have various other issues that prevent them from attending fully to their studies. And yes, databases can identify those people, but there is a limit (especially given how much finding has been cut from higher ed recently) to how much institutions can help these students.

What nobody wants to say out loud is that not every 18 year-old is ready to make a commitment to a particular career track/course of study, but since there basically are no other options anymore (and high schools seem reluctant to encourage people to go into trades for reasons I can't begin to understand), they should just go to college, even though we know we are setting them up for failure. But hey - we'll install a tracking system to monitor that failure and make them feel even more nervous when they get off a track they probably didn't even want to be on to begin with.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 1:17 PM on July 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


The problem is that much of the stuff is bunk. Consider Meyers-Briggs for example. It is total pseudoscientific nonsense. Yet college and career advisors routinely pull OT out as a guideline for which career might suit you.
posted by humanfont at 8:26 PM on July 23, 2012


It certainly will if we do nothing to stop it.

It already has. Have you seen how much a university education costs? It's not a voyage of self-discovery anymore, it's a massively leveraged investment with a phenomenal amount of risk. Students should probably be choosing their major with the advice of a crack team of financial planners, not a lone member of the junior faculty. Nobody talks about the "serendipitous aspect" of buying options on margin, or taking out a HELOC, or any number of other insanely risky financial ventures -- most of which, thankfully, 18-year-olds don't get mixed up in.

The faster we can stomp out any lingering romantic notions of higher ed, the better. That ship sailed into the sunset years ago, right about the time that mortgage-sized bankruptcy-proof loans became de rigeur, and it's not fair to be feeding students false hopes and bad ideas on the very slim chance that somehow the good old days are going to come back.

The eAdvisor system seems like a fine idea, if it injects any rationality into the decisionmaking process at all.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:33 PM on July 23, 2012


Ugh "Big Data" is about the most ridiculous term to get crapped out by IT marketers since "The Cloud". And 72,000 students is not a source of "Big Data" unless you have like, BILLIONS data points on each one.

(in fact, going by the Wikipedia definition, it means data measured in petabytes. You'd need about 14 gigabytes of data per student to get one petabyte)
posted by delmoi at 12:41 AM on July 24, 2012


It already has. Have you seen how much a university education costs?

Yeah, I have. But would you use this reasoning for other problems? Racism, sexism, poverty, ecological and economic problems -- all of these are deeply entrenched and complex; would you advocate just saying "be realistic and put up with it?"

We did not get here by the action of a magical education crisis pony. These problems are the result of a web of policy decisions which could be changed. Not that they will be if people keep buying your viewpoint, though.

I am not advocating college solely as a place "to find yourself." however, it is a place where you can learn to think outside the paradigm you were born in. For many students, college is the first place they encounter thinking outside of what they imagine is "natural," and that exposure is critical to having an informed population, which is, in turn, critical for a nation which needs to deal with a complicated and changing world.

We need to restore public support to higher education instead of spending it on shoring up profits. Unless, you know, the Gilded Age seemed like paradise to you.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:30 AM on July 24, 2012


Once again GenjiandProust gets up earlier than me and beats me to the punch. This:
I am not advocating college solely as a place "to find yourself." however, it is a place where you can learn to think outside the paradigm you were born in. For many students, college is the first place they encounter thinking outside of what they imagine is "natural," and that exposure is critical to having an informed population, which is, in turn, critical for a nation which needs to deal with a complicated and changing world.
is spot on. The reason tuition at my university is going up this year, and the reason it went up last year, and two years before that, is because the state has cut our funding every single year since 2008. Adding an eAdvisor is not going to make college more affordable. Reinvesting in education (at all levels) as a public good will.

Also, I totally want a "magical education crisis pony" for my birthday!
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:30 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, I totally want a "magical education crisis pony" for my birthday!

I would prefer a magical education funding pony that eats legislators and poops out fat budget lines, but that's me....
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:39 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I did not settle on my major subject until midway through my second year. At which point it was clear to me from attempting plan A and plan B in a muddling manner that there turned out to be a plan C which could get me to graduation.

If some computer program had been accurate enough to divine my plan C on day number 1 there is no way I would have found it acceptable. My parents would not have liked it. My friends would have mocked it. I am highly dubious this system could work well for even a majority of the students.
posted by bukvich at 7:19 PM on July 24, 2012


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