Big Data in Education: Profiling or Empowering?

Any discussion of data mining almost necessarily leads to a discussion of profiling.
In essence, profiling is what big data is all about: finding patterns, gleaning insights, forming a picture — and making predictions.
I think the “summary article” is more alarmist than necessary; to me, the original piece in Fast Company is more about how WSU is using big data to help students than to maximize profit.
Summary article by Pam Baker in FierceBigData, original article by Neal Ungerleider in Fast Company. CNN article by Paul Schmitz.
Emphasis in red added by me.
Brian Wood, VP Marketing

Colleges use predictive analytics to select students ‘most likely to succeed’ prior to admittance

While colleges and universities are busy collecting expected data such as grades and extracurricular activities on high school students, they are also gathering data on the kids’ life circumstances such as whether they have a job, behavioral problems outside of school or a lack of family support. They claim this wider sweep of data helps correctly predict which students are most likely to succeed in college and which are not.
An article in Fast Company points to Wichita State University as an example of how this works.
“According to IBM’s data, WSU’s recruitment model had 96% accuracy identifying ‘high-yield’ application prospects compared to 82% by the external consultants.”
That could turn out to be a huge societal problem in the end, though.
When predictive analytics shows a kid is likely to succeed at college, it’s probably right. But when it shows a kid is unlikely to succeed it could be very, very wrong. There is, after all, nothing more American than overcoming the odds. And many an American kid has beat the heck out of a staggering heap of bad odds.
Conversely, what of the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the world? In all likelihood, predictive analytics would have labeled them acceptable risks–and much wanted students–for nearly any college. But they both dropped out anyway.
You can see a long list of famous, high achieving, college drop outs in a post on CNN. Would none of these people have been accepted in college then or later in life because predictive analytics say they would be drop out losers?
My point is that this exercise seems to be more about making universities money and improving their stats than it is about improving education.
Yes, I’m sure some colleges will use big data to assess which students need more help and to eventually personalize education for everyone. Even so, the public should not be at ease with using big data to effectively discriminate in education–which is exactly what this is when a student can be negatively impacted by factors he or she does not control such as family life, birth order and home address.
I am an ardent supporter of higher education and am totally for anything that improves it. However, big data often leads to discriminating practices in many fields and education is not immune. Therefore, I’m blasting this warning far and wide.
It is imperative to our country’s economic survival that we use big data to improve our education system and not just to declare some students as unprofitable to institutions and bar them from it altogether.

Colleges Are Using Big Data To Predict Which Students Will Do Well–Before They Accept Them

Can predictive analytics determine which students succeed and which will fail? More universities are finding that the answer is yes.

Students at America’s high schools, colleges, and universities are well into their first semesters. But while they plow through their assigned readings and write essays, administrators are turning their grades and their professors’ evaluations into millions upon millions of tiny data points. Much like every other field in the world, education is embracing big data–only, this time, they’re using it to determine who will thrive in college, who will fail, and who will need some extra help.
David Wright is Wichita State University‘s (WSU) Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs. In his position, Wright is responsible for overseeing the vast amounts of data WSU uses to track student and faculty performance. Like a growing number of American educational institutions, Wichita State uses predictive analysis tools to optimize their offerings and steer help to students who need it.
“We know our data better than an outside agency. We know the business practices in our system better, which outside vendors don’t do, and this allows us to do more with the data than them,” Wright tells Co.Exist. Using data points such as a student’s paper grades, the amount of hours he or she is enrolled during each semester, whether they’re working part-time or full-time or not at all, the amount of assistance from family and a host of other factors, WSU can predict which students are likely to encounter problems.

WSU has used predictive analytics software for the past several years. According to an IBM white paper, the university’s decision to implement a suite of IBM business analytics software in the school’s admissions department also helped predict the success rate for incoming students. The university decided to use the company’s analytics package instead of hiring external consultants to appraise incoming students. In a twist, it turns out the analytics software suite was better than the human consultants at predicting which students would succeed at Wichita State. According to IBM’s data, WSU’s recruitment model had 96% accuracy identifying “high-yield” application prospects compared to 82% by the external consultants.
But Wright added that integrating big data into the school’s practices took delicate work in terms of preserving institutional culture. “Implementing analytics requires getting in people’s business. Many units on campus that are overburdened or have low resources could see it as a burden. It means more requests for work, strangers showing up at their meetings, etc.,” he said. “But in terms of admissions, I saw they needed some information that they couldn’t get their hands on through external consultants, so I told them that if I worked with them I’d help them find benefits.”

Katharine Frase, IBM’s CTO of Global Public Sector, also notes that predictive analytics use by universities isn’t limited to admissions departments. She says that big data suites help schools “ask questions they didn’t know they needed to ask,” and shows use in everything from scheduling classes to identifying possible at-risk students in high schools. In one example of combining big data and predictive analytics, Frase noted that big data platforms can parse students interests and past academic performance, and recommend assistance for that particular student’s needs.
Another IBM executive, VP of Global Education Industry Michael King, said that, in education, big data and predictive analytics techniques are in their infancy. But he believes they will transform the industry as much as they have transformed health care. “We’re only just now starting to work through what opportunities are for leveraging big data in education, and health care is a model for this. We provide prescriptive solutions to help make recommendations to clinicians around potential treatment opportunities, how to intervene with certain patients, and we see parallels in education where we can use data to personalize the educational experience,” he says.
“The right set of information is everything. I think that, looking at lifelong learning and using data to help provide clearer pathways to students for a multi-institutional education plan, using tools similar to like Watson, is an important goal. We want to show how to put more tools in their hands for broad data. We can give prescriptive data to save time intervening for individual students.”
Predictive analytics tools from IBM and others are starting to become more commonplace in higher education–sooner or later, the tools used by schools like Wichita State will become the norm.

Lessons from famous college dropouts

(CNN) — A college degree can be an important gateway to employment, a career and a better standard of living. But a college degree does not equate to someone’s level of intelligence or talent. For those seeking the best workers or leaders, there is a plethora of intelligent, inventive people without degrees who should not be overlooked.
Recognizing this does not negate the importance of a college education — the intellectual knowledge, access to a wide array of subjects and experience gained on a college campus can be transformative. Studies demonstrate clearly that without a college degree, you will likely earn less, be more liable to be unemployed and have fewer opportunities for career advancement.
The challenge is that access to college has become more limited. At a time when degrees are so important to income potential, they are going increasingly to privileged and affluent young people. As the 2010 book “Rewarding Strivers” points out, among those who scored in the highest quartile of a national standardized test, those from affluent families were twice as likely to attend college as those from poorer families.
So a lot of talent goes unrecognized and undeveloped. And those without college degrees aren’t necessarily less driven or intelligent than those with degrees. Michael Ellsberg, author of “The Education of Millionaires,” argued in The New York Times recently that the skills of entrepreneurs are not learned “crouched over a desk studying for multiple-choice exams.” Indeed, years ago Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance created a research-based entrepreneurship test that deducts a substantial number of points if you were a high achiever in school.
This is what we have found at Public Allies over the past two decades. We have worked with thousands of young adults without college degrees and have seen many achieve incredible success (with many eventually completing degrees). We’ve seen a single mom in community college become a White House lawyer, a former gang member create a youth development organization and a woman raised in foster care work for a foundation reforming foster care systems.
I share these and many other stories in my book, “Everyone Leads.” When we equate talent, competence and character with credentials, we block a lot of superstar leaders our businesses, communities and country need.
Here are examples of other superstars who did not complete college on their rise to the top:
— We all know the story of Steve Jobs, who dropped out of Reed College. Since the days of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, many business leaders got their starts without the benefit of degrees, including Larry Ellison of Oracle, Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz of Facebook, Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Brian Dunn of Best Buy, Anna Wintour of Vogue, Barry Diller of IAC, John Mackey of Whole Foods, David Geffen, Ralph Lauren and Ted Turner.
— David Plouffe, senior advisor to President Barack Obama and architect of his innovative and historically unprecedented campaign, dropped out of the University of Delaware to work in politics (returning to complete his degree in 2010). President George W. Bush’s top adviser, Karl Rove, and John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, also lacked degrees.
— Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, dropped out of Marquette University. He is joined by Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska and 33 members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Maya Angelou has received many honorary doctorates but never attended college to learn her craft. She’s in good company with many other great American writers, such as Gore Vidal, August Wilson, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Joseph Brodsky and Harper Lee.
Woody Allen is loved by intellectuals for his philosophical films, but he did not gain his style on a campus, having flunked out of City College of New York. Other Oscar winners without degrees include Clint Eastwood, James Cameron, Robert Redford, Michael Moore, Sidney Pollack, George Clooney, Hillary Swank, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Steven Spielberg (who completed a degree in 2002).
— Oprah Winfrey left Tennessee State University in 1976 to begin her career in media (completing her degree in 1986). Top talkers without degrees include Larry King, Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Kimmel, Joy Behar, Rosie O’Donnell and conservative talkers Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.
Brian Williams attended three schools and completed 18 undergraduate credits before working his way to NBC News anchor. Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor were also anchors without degrees. And many reporters and columnists never completed college, including Nina Totenberg of NPR, Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post and former New York Times columnist and wordsmith William Safire.
Alicia Keys has made a name for herself as a singer, songwriter and political activist. She joins an exclusive club of singer/activists without degrees that includes Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Steve Earle and Jon Bon Jovi.
The point of this list is not to disparage higher education — it is still the best pathway to success. But imagine if venture capitalists had denied Steve Jobs or Bill Gates support because their resumes lacked a diploma, or if producers had denied Oprah Winfrey a television show because she had not completed her degree.
We need to make college more accessible to smart people from all backgrounds, while also being careful not to judge talent, character or competence primarily by higher education credentials. Our nation should be a ladder of opportunity for the best talent, regardless of background.