Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Mining Data" in the Classroom

I've been subscribing to The Chronicle of Higher Education for a year or so. I thought I subscribed to read about new ideas in higher education. As it turns out, I read this journal simply to give me a target for specific frustrations. I find it more satisfying to yell at The Chronicle than to yell at Fox News. I'm not sure why.

Anyway, today's target is the article by Marc Perry, "Colleges Mine Data to Tailor Students' Experience". I only got about 7 paragraphs in before I was yelling at the paper--and Bill Gates, of course.

The article is advocating technology that can group students by their interests, grades and responses on test. Those things sound strikingly like part of the job description of teachers and advisors. I'm not saying I would never use a technology that could do some of these things, but it would be an aid to something instructors already do. Grouping students for in-class discussion based on the answers to their tests is NOT new. I do that all the time.

a typical group discussion

Bill Gates earned my ire with this gem: "I know more about my 11-year old son's sixth-grade basketball team than the average college faculty member knows about their incoming class..." I wonder if his son plays on a basketball team with a new roster of 35 students each term. I wonder if he's met any of the players before the first game (class).

Teachers learn about their students during the course of the class. In the best case scenario, they interact with students in and out of the classroom, but is it feasible that college level instructors know the "...key variables that are going to make them successful or not successful" before the class begins? I just learned the "key variables" of 70 other students, most of whom will not take class with me again this year.

So, anyway, the technology will fix all this. Student scores, and a "college-admissions algorithm" will enable teachers to serve students better. I might be overly sensitive today, but this seems like the folks who believe this don't value my skills as an instructor very highly.

I get that there are folks out there who believe that my job is to deliver a product service to my customers students, but I think this is a dangerous way to look at education. If I sign in to Amazon to buy a book, its fine that Amazon suggests other books I might like, but it gives me suggestions based on author's names, best sellers and general topics of books I've purchased in the past. Amazon doesn't know what is useful for me and it has a superficial idea of what I might like. Amazon certainly doesn't encourage me to try books by authors or genres I haven't tried before. As a "provider" of higher education, I hope I am giving my students more than that with which they are already familiar.

To use a computer to track test answers and quickly group students for discussion sounds fine, but when we get into having computers (alone) direct students to career paths based on their previous success, I start to get nervous. Its not a bad idea, but it seems like a potentially limiting idea. Just the same, using a computer as an assistant to an instructor is fine, but I get nervous when the folks touting the technology aren't acknowledging that instructors do performed these "tasks" before the computer came along. And skilled instructors can perform these tasks with or without the technology.

Support the instructors, don't try to replace them. Writing about or developing programs that act like instructors don't know this stuff sounds like a step towards de-valuing those instructors and their specific skills and experience.

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