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

At a conference in October devoted to exploring the perks of Big Data in higher education, the event’s keynote speaker had a surprisingly contrarian take on the subject.

Universities are investing millions in Big Data.

“Big Data is bull—,” Harper Reed, the chief technology officer of President Obama’s 2012 campaign, said to an audience that included many campus IT officials hoping to learn more about Big Data’s benefits.

Reed, who used the power of data to help Obama secure reelection, said the term is just a marketing tool meant to drive college and university IT officials toward expensive technologies for storing and analyzing data.

If true, it’s a PR move that’s working.

The University of Rochester has spent more than $100 million on “Big Data research.” Indiana University spent more than $30 million for a building to house its $7.5 million Big Data-crunching super computer called Big Red II.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Sloan Foundation have pledged $37.8 million over five years to the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Washington, and New York University for a Big Data collaboration.

If there’s any current set of buzzwords that rivals the popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in higher education circles, it’s Big Data.

But the phrase’s definition has a more elusive quality to it than the easily marketable free online courses. Just what is Big Data, and how are campuses using it, exactly?

“Big Data is this exponential increase of information that’s been going on since the 1950s,” said Jim Spohrer, the director of Global University Relations Programs at IBM, a company that has partnered with campuses to drive the study and adoption of data analytics.

Every decade since then, Spohrer said, has seen a certain section of business or society become a data leader. Maybe it was insurance companies in the 50s, he said, or the Sabre computer system for the travel industry in the 1960s.

Spohrer refers to the information collected by these entities as “small data.”

The small data has continued to pile up over the decades as information increasingly went digital, before finally exploding in growth in recent years due to online interactions.

Social media posts, online news articles, digital scans of academic journals, student financial aid profiles, online medical histories of patients, transportation system sensors – taken altogether, this is Big Data.

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