Blog Post

Quantified Campus

A specter is haunting the modern research university -- the specter of big data. Writing in the New York Times Education section, Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Marc Parry details the pervasive use of quantitative monitoring at Arizona State University. Focusing on students, Parry writes about how various online tools record student performance and, at times, recommend remedial measures for struggling students, such as seeking "eAdvising" and switching majors.

The backlash to this piece has been along two lines: a concern for student privacy, and an aversion to this consumer-style approach to education. These are interesting reactions that put their finger on troubling trends. But, perhaps, even more fundamental is, from the teaching and administrative side, the disappearance of advising and the reliance on data in its place.

Elizabeth D. Capaldi, an A.S.U. provost, provides an example in Parry's article of this type of approach

“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. By putting those courses first, you can see if a student is going to succeed in that major early.” Arizona State’s retention rate rose to 84 percent from 77 percent in recent years, a change Ms. Capaldi credits largely to eAdvisor.

In this scenario, eAdvisor is a system that counsels students when they go "off-track" -- when they have serious academic difficulty. If a student has trouble with statistics, they have to be counseled away from psychology, and toward a major at which they can succeed, and thereby fulfill their graduation requirements.

"And so they're in the wrong major." By this logic, if a family goes on a car vacation and misses an exit, they should change their destination entirely. Why aren't there more granular points at which advising takes place? When the in-course data shows a student struggling with statistics, why not intervene then? At A.S.U., Parry's article implicitly suggests, the massive student population -- of over 72,000 -- makes such levels of advising impossible. Big data, instead of offering a method for capturing and evaluating student performance on a granular level, provides detailed evidence of individual performance problems that are used to shore up key statistics like retention rates.

The switch from advising as individual academic counseling to advising as crisis management has a corresponding change: instead of helping a young student explore new academic options, university academics now emphasizes mitigation of difficulty, including curricular choice:

Mr. Denley [Tristan Denley, a programmer and provost at Austin Peay State University] points to a spate of recent books by behavioral economists, all with a common theme: When presented with many options and little information, people find it difficult to make wise choices. The same goes for college students trying to construct a schedule, he says. They know they must take a social science class, but they don’t know the implications of taking political science vs. psychology vs. economics. They choose based on course descriptions or to avoid having to wake up for an 8 a.m. class on Monday. Every year, students in Tennessee lose their state scholarships because they fall a hair short of the G.P.A. cutoff, Mr. Denley says, a financial swing that “massively changes their likelihood of graduating.”

As with Capaldi's statement, the shoring up of end-line academic results -- graduation rates in this case, and retention rates in her case -- merits mention as the goal. And, on one level, retaining and graduating more students isn't a bad thing; it points to the functionality and success of an individual university's system. But the choice of political science, psychology, and economics might lead a freshman to make a decision that changes the course of her career. Failing to succeed in economics, for instance, might give a sophomore the kind of clarity he needs to pursue political science -- or some fourth option -- in earnest.

Failure and difficulty are parts of teaching and parts of learning. It's a given that new teachers will struggle in their early years. Taking struggle out of all side of education impoverishes not only its ability to impart knowledge, but its potential to affect and change the course of individual lives and collective consciousnesses.



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