Mine your own business, learner

Audrey Watters, who writes at Hack Education, has posted a transcript of a talk she gave at Columbia as part of their Conversations About Online Learning series. Setting aside the envy I have of a place that holds a lecture series about technology and higher learning, Watters goes deep on some of the implications of “data mining” in education, fleshing out some of the ways such data might be used and pointing out how risky that might be for students.

…all this data that students create, that software can track, and that engineers and educators and administrators can analyze will bring about a more “personalized,” a more responsive, a more efficient school system.

How will this magic happen? Using the same secret algorithmic sauce that companies like Google use to tailor search results and ads, and Amazon uses to sell you, well, pretty much anything. So what’s the hitch? There are at least two, according to Watters: privacy and money.

It may be obvious, but if data is going to make a big difference in student learning, that is going to require a sea change in the rules surrounding access to that data. Or is it? It appears that right now, the rules are being skirted by private companies that don’t have the same restrictions as actual schools. I suspect that most students and their parents aren’t aware of this end run around educational data privacy. It is access to this kind of data that will be necessary to assist with learning, in the absence of actual human interaction.

And the money? It’s not money in the sense of cost to students. On the contrary, most ‘big data’ education projects are free to the student, meaning someone else is paying. For now, the bills are being paid by venture capital investors that are expecting BIG returns. We’re in the early days, the thinking goes, of a major shift in the way education is done, and one of the biggest parts of this shift is the privatization of education. Sure, there has been some suggestion that these programs will lead to a system of credentials not unlike a degree, and some programs have even been rolled out. But for the most part, the schools with the biggest stakes in this territory thus far are not talking about any kind of equivalency between their live and online programs.

1 thought on “Mine your own business, learner”

  1. Very interesting, especially with the increasing discussion and interest in data analytics at our school. Also a valuable cautionary note about third parties, especially the ones (Google) who are not charging for their services. Thanks. I think all this talk about data and metadata–especially the kinds that computers can track and crunch, the quantitative kind–enables us to highlight and accentuate more the kinds of qualitative experiences that a small, residential, liberal arts university fosters and cultivates. A friend recently visited OSU with her son, an up-and-coming-prospective student, and she was describing how the key message of the admission tour was “You can’t make a small school big, but you can make a big school small” (75% of all freshman courses are now in classes of around 20 students, and so on.)

    On the larger topic of metaphor: for a long time I’ve been seeking alternative language to that of Empire and its myth of redemptive violence, and I always come back to agriculture, gardening, and farming. The recent debates over gun control have really highlighted how pervasive violence is in our culture.

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