Sunday, January 18, 2015

I worry about the unholy mix of big data and higher education

I often remark to students--well, the few who register for my classes anymore--that one of the biggest advantages of teaching in higher education is that I deal with people who are legally adults.  Sometimes I share with them the comments I have heard from teachers in the K-12 system: according to most, teaching the lower elementary years is the best because many, many kids show a great deal of excitement and interest in learning new stuff.  Teaching high school children is not that great.  The worst, the nightmare of all, is teaching those in that transition--the awful middle school/junior high years of life.

Those K-12 teachers have that heavy, heavy responsibility of taking care of young minds, whose lives could be shaped/mis-shaped by what teachers do and don't do.  I, on the other hand, deal with adults.  Well, adults in the legal sense--there is an increasing worry that there seems to be a protracted teenage mentality well into the early twenties as well.  The law says they are adults and I am relieved.

Relieved because, as I often remind students, adults are responsible for the consequences of their actions.  Kids can always claim that they were being kids after all.  But, not so with adults.

Which is why I don't care whether they attend classes--only to sleep--or party or work, as long as they understand that they are responsible for the consequences.  As simple as that.  Of course, I remind them that studies have consistently demonstrated a high correlation between attending classes and successfully completing them.  But then, I add, correlation is no causation either.

I so miss Calvin. Damn you, Bill Watterson! ;)

You can, therefore, imagine why I find it awfully bizarre that universities are now tapping into technology and big data in order to track student attendance:
At Villanova University, student ID cards track attendance at some lectures. Administrators at University of Arkansas last semester began electronically monitoring the class attendance of 750 freshmen as part of a pilot program they might extend to all underclassman. And at Harvard, researchers secretly filmed classrooms to learn how many students were skipping lectures.
There is only one way I can possibly respond to this: WTF!

I understand the intention: we want students to complete their undergraduate education on time and with success.  But, hey, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  That road includes things like:
The latest entrant into the market of tracking student’s whereabouts: Class120, a $199-a-year notification service that tracks a student through the GPS in their smartphone and alerts their parents (or another third party) in real time if their child isn’t within a geofence mapped around the classroom where they are scheduled to be.

A student is no different from a prisoner released on parole with a monitoring anklet on?  OMG!
schools have realized they have a trove of new data to look at, such as how much a student is accessing the syllabus, taking part in online discussions with classmates and reading assigned material. Such technology “shows faculty exactly where students are interacting outside as well inside the classroom,” said Stephen Fugale, Villanova’s chief information officer.
Yes, we now have plenty of data and inexpensive computing to analyze the data in no time at all.  But, does it therefore mean that we ought to use them like this?
University of Arkansas began experimenting with mandatory attendance as a way to boost its 62% six-year graduation rate, said Provost Sharon Gaber. “We talk about helicopter parents,” she said. “Well, some of these kids haven’t learned how to get out of bed on their own yet.”
Ahem, somebody ought to remind Sharon Gaber that they are not "kids" but adults. Adults according to the law.  The same law that even forbids me from discussing anything about the student even with the student's "helicopter parents" who might even be paying for everything.  I wish I had been able to talk some sense into Sharon Gaber when we were fellow graduate students at USC's School of Urban and Regional Planning, as it was called then! ;)

But, this, too, will be a losing battle for me, and I will add it to the long and ever-growing list of windmills that I have charged against.

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