Higher Education’s Big (Data) Bang: Part Two


Ellen Wagner, executive director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, said while she doesn’t consider the interest in Big Data to be a passing phase, the criticism does help to ground the conversation.

“It’s great to remind us to put on our ‘reality glasses,’ to remind people that they need to be paying attention to the hype permeating this space right now,” Wagner said. “It’s really easy to talk about the ‘Amazonification’ of education. It’s easy to get seduced by what Amazon and these big transaction platforms do, but we have to remember that with education, we’re not talking about the same kinds of aggregated transactions.”

It may turn out that the kind of data gathering that online retailers have used so well for product recommendations may not be so easily applicable to college course recommendations.

Improving student outcomes is just one of many reasons a university may choose in invest in Big Data, however. Woosley said it’s important for a university to know what questions it’s hoping to answer with data before making the kinds of investments seen at Indiana University and the University of Rochester.

A large research university hoping to uncover a common thread in thousands of car accident reports would be utilizing Big Data in a completely different way than a college just focused on helping students graduate. Too much data can be just as useless as not enough.

Or even the same as no data at all.

“People talk about information overload in terms of just email,” said Woosley, who is now the Director of Analytics and Research at EBI MAP-Works. “We’ll see the same thing with data reports. If you’ve given someone too much information, they’ll throw it all out as they don’t even know how to pick through it. There’s definitely a risk here of getting enamored with the phenomenon. Do you as an institution even need this huge data warehouse? The devil’s in the details.”

Mark Milliron, Chief Learning Officer and co-founder of data analytics company Civitas Learning, said those details will decide an institution’s success with Big Data.

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