Saturday, April 12, 2014

Data-Mining in Universities

After reading this week’s articles, I wanted to learn more about how people are actually using (or being used by) data-mining. I found this article by The New York Times, which got me so angry that I thought it would definitely be worth sharing. The article is called Big Data on Campus; it’s a collaboration between The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and was written in 2012 by Marc Parry, the technology reporter for The Chronicle.

The article reports on some disturbing (to me, at least) ways that colleges and universities are expanding the routine online surveillance they do on their students.
The article cites schools that are using data about a student’s grades, attendance, and online course activity to monitor their progress in the major track and send them “warning” emails when their work starts to falter and they’re in danger of damaging their ability to complete the major on time, which still seems like a reasonable (if slightly nanny-ish) use of the technology. But some schools are routinely monitoring things like where and when students are using their ID to pay for things around campus, and correlating that with similar data about other students’ activities to infer which students are friends, in relationships, or frequently spend time together.

Schools are also saving data about past students’ class choices, to make personalized “recommended course” lists available to current students. These lists recommend classes that other students in the same major and with similar transcripts took and passed; the emphasis is on courses the student can be reasonably sure of passing, given their current academic record. The problem with that, particularly, seems to be that there is no push for students to challenge themselves or explore new things. Some schools, like Arizona state, blocks students from signing up for majors or courses where they’ve previously done poorly, and will even force them to switch majors after dropping or getting low (but not failing) grades in only one or two courses. There’s no leeway given for students who had issues that affected their grades other than not being able to understand the coursework, and no value given to students who might be able to turn their grades around and follow the path they really wanted.

Overall, I think this is a really interesting and potentially disturbing trend in academic data-mining, and one that should definitely be of interest to us as students and members of the academic community.

"Big Data on Campus"

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