From the EdSurge news page, we learn that colleges and universities are discovering the benefits of big data. It’s no secret that colleges and universities have to do a lot more with less these days—or face closure. Whether because of high administrative costs, a declining number of applicants (the result of widespread economic insecurity that seems immune to the healing effects of shareholder economic growth), and a general reluctance to take on student debt, if higher educational institutions are to survive in great enough numbers to actually offer students meaningful post-secondary choices, cost-efficiency and good student experiences are essential.
So the big data companies were apparently out in force at a recent technology-in-higher-education trade show. There were a startling 275+ companies there, promoting all kinds of data-driven solutions to logistical, resource, recruiting, and management questions.
And it’s all about tracking the student, the EdSurge article says: “If colleges actually bought all the tools sold here, just about every move made by students and professors in physical and virtual campuses would be tracked and analyzed in the name of efficiency.” But it doesn’t stop there. The ultimate vision, which should surprise no one who is familiar with data entrepreneurialism, is to create and fill those student profiles before the students actually move to the college, as well as continue the tracking after they graduate.
The pitch is that the tracking will help improve retention, student experience, and graduation rates. Data collection can track student progress in class and on major projects. Data collection can track student use of buildings to maximize building hours, and even spot students who need financial or educational help. Colleges can also use data to determine the best performing professors.
All of this happens at relatively low cost compared to the kind of money-versus-output that higher education institutions get when they hire consultants that don’t use such data.
For those concerned about privacy, the companies typically argue that students have the ability to opt out, so there’s no invasion of privacy. But readers may also be sympathetic to a Wired piece by Brian Barret written last August, in the context of Apple’s practice of sharing voice assistant recordings to contractors, and the offer of the “opt-out” by companies flagged for getting too personal or chatty with people’s data. Barret points out that data collection under the opt-out is default; it happens automatically unless you proactively stop it, where an opt-in puts the consumer “in control from the start.”
Nevertheless, as Nicole Gorman reports in Education World, CEOs of data companies see the collection of that student data as a key to increasing student achievement “despite frequent controversy over privacy and security concerns.” And that’s fair enough. In particular, tracking data around student services, student buildings, hours in the library or union, cost of things like books and supplies, all these things above and beyond actual academic performance, could certainly be used to increase the overall serviceability of campuses to students—and think especially of special-needs students, first-generation college attendees, and the like.