Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Data Mining and Developing Minds

Heather Cox Richardson

There is now a program that will let e-book textbook companies mine data on how long students spend interacting with electronic materials. This will enable teachers to calculate a grade for the students’ “engagement” in class.


I cannot imagine what would have happened to my undergraduate career if anyone had graded my “engagement” with information. (For that matter, I can’t imagine what would happen to my professional career if anyone monitored my engagement with information today!) I am a grazer, ranging over as many sources as possible until something catches me, when I get obsessed with the topic it unveils. As an undergraduate, I would skim through assigned material until something caught my attention. Then I would move into the library and read everything I could find on it, no matter what the syllabus said I should be doing. And when I say a grazer, I mean I skimmed. Fast.

My engagement scores for textbooks would have always been Fs (except for Sara Evans’s Personal Politics, which so gripped me I read the entire thing in less than two hours. Probably would have failed that engagement grade, too.) I would have been chucked out of every single history class I took. Actually, the only college class I could have passed was philosophy, because I found it so mind-numbingly boring I actually read the texts. . . and nothing else.

There is much talk in academia of quantifying what we do and making sure it properly educates students for the 21st-century economy. To that end, certain schools and educators are pushing the idea of quantifiable measures of achievement. This is a lovely idea, and would work beautifully if we knew exactly what skills would be necessary in the 21st century. But we don’t. As I am fond of pointing out, ten of the most in-demand professions in 2010 did not exist in 2004. How do you figure out what a student needs to know for a profession you cannot imagine?

Here’s a thought: we could trust the human brain and encourage students to follow their own passions, rather than trying to quantify everything that happens in the educational process. Had my professors not allowed me the space to do exactly that, I would have dropped out of college in my first year.


Unknown said...

Measuring engagement based on time spent between page-turns is easily beaten, if a student wanted to get the grade without doing the work. But as you said, the algorithms probably don't adequately account for people who read fast, read out of order, read like --gasp! -- grad students. Ironically, this type of quantity over quality grading would teach students to do tasks that computers can already do better. How's that for preparation?!

Gabriel Loiacono said...

Is there also a program measuring how often and how intensely a student daydreams during lecture? Interesting post!

hcr said...

Gabriel, what I need is a program measuring how often I daydream in lecture! It's fairly common for me to think of something interesting because of the way I've tried to articulate material for my students, and then I'm stuck for a few seconds between wanting to write down the idea and needing to get on with the lecture!

But Dan's point kind of sums all this up for me. Why on earth are we trying to tie the human mind to algorithms just when those are now easily done by machines. This seems like the very time to work on freeing the human mind to do the things that only it can do.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Wow. This is truly shocking. Thanks for warning us.