This is interesting reading and shows us where Big Data is heading in Higher Education: Mapping the Postsecondary Data Domain: Problems and Possibilities. It’s clear that Learning Analytics, or in this case Business Intelligence of HEIs is gaining more and more foothold in education and even more so in politics. The aim of the policy document is to promote convergence of a large variety of data sources for the benefit of better understanding the HE system. And I do have a problem with it!
More than one, actually: Firstly, there seems to be no problem statement. The section “why do we need better postsecondary data” is just rhetorical to convince that we do, but doesn’t start with the question “why do we think we need better postsecondary data?”, or, in other words: what is wrong with our understanding of HE. Maybe it is the values that we put to it. Is this going to be answered by enrollment data?
My second criticism is that unified data searches for the one-and-only right answer. This is implicit in the quest, that if we have all the data, we can give the ultimate authoritative answer. But life isn’t like this at all, and it doesn’t require a scientist to tell you so. At the same time, though, unification robs the system of diversity and of vitality through areas of renewals. As soon as an institution has to officially report on something or other, the rules of autonomy and self-determination are changed.
Then there are obvious strange things in the suggested quest for data information:
The assumptions (in the left column) are quite far from a problem statement, other than that they are in themselves most problematic:
- Consumers need to know the demographic profile of the student body: why? To sell them particular items? If you think about it, this statement is quite anti-inclusive; it’s there to discriminate against parts of the student population (like: rich kids only go to colleges with their sorts).
- Institutions need to know which students they are serving: how would this increase access? Such knowledge has traditionally led to exclusion not to widening access. Indiscriminate access is what’s needed and for this I don’t need people-categories. Especially so, since the authorities do not mandate intake of quotas of e.g. Native Americans, immigrants, special needs, etc.
- Policymakers need to know which institutions provide sufficient access to a diverse array of students: why? Should general access not anyway be the norm? What does “sufficient access” mean?
The criticism is further exacerbated by the data asked in the right column like race/ethnicity and gender.
Starting with the wrong questions isn’t going to provide useful answers, if data can even be expected to give an authoritative answer not a political one. Neither in politics nor in economics, where loads and loads of data have been available and used extensively, has it provided us with answers on how to do things right: the one-and-only answer has been missing. Why should this be any different in education?