Big Data? Big Whoop.

08 Oct
big data

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Score another similarity between marketing and adult education — both seem inordinately enamored with big data these days.

In marketing it’s all about dashboards and return on investment (ROI).  According to one marketing blog, big data provides “better insight about customers, the ability to more precisely segment customers into meaningful groups, and target offers with a higher degree of response. Big data is particularly relevant for predictive analytics where the goal is to model the intention or propensity of a buyer to purchase.”

In education, the growing interest in massive open online courses, or MOOCs, seems to be generating as much stir about big data as it is about what students might actually be learning in these courses.  Nick Carr writes:

Delivering a complex class to thousands of people simultaneously demands a high degree of automation. Many of the labor-intensive tasks traditionally performed by professors and teaching assistants—grading tests, tutoring, moderating discussions—have to be done by computers. Advanced analytical software is also required to parse the enormous amounts of information about student behavior collected during the classes. By using algorithms to spot patterns in the data, programmers hope to gain insights into learning styles and teaching strategies, which can then be used to refine the technology further.

These quotes are just examples of a glut of writing on the subject — some pro, some con — but my point is simply this:  Big data is big business.  My goal is not to choose right or wrong or prove the value of big data, but I do want to caution you not to get too caught up in what Tim Suther calls “a tsunami of data.”  Pick your favorite idiom, whether it’s everything in moderation or don’t miss the forest for the trees.  Heck, there is even a country song about missing What Mattered Most.  I tend to call it analysis paralysis.  You slice and dice the data until it either says anything you want it to… or nothing at all.  And then what do you do with it?

Christa Carone is the Chief Marketing Officer at Xerox.  She was quoted in a recent article on saying, “I wouldn’t want to give up the data that helps us make fact-based decisions quickly. But I fear that marketers’ access to and obsession with measuring everything takes away from the business of real marketing.”  She went on to say, “It’s impossible to measure ‘squishier’ meaningful intangibles, such as human emotion, personal connection and the occasional ‘ahhhh’ moment.”

May I be so bold as to say she could just have easily been talking about teaching and learning?

I didn’t get into marketing to be a number cruncher.  I got into marketing because I had a decent ability to communicate a particular message to a particular audience.  It’s not that I mind having some data to tell me if I’m hitting my mark, but I don’t want to spend all day looking at the numbers and miss the opportunity to make that personal connection.  And as adult educators — whether continuing studies instructor, facilitator, or corporate trainer — how many of us would choose refining the technology over seeing a student have that ahhhh moment?


Posted by on October 8, 2012 in ADLT 641


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8 responses to “Big Data? Big Whoop.

  1. jshill2

    October 9, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    Joanne, this is a fantastic post! I most admit, I sometimes worry about this very issue here at VCU. Over the past five or six years, I’ve witnessed university administration become increasingly focused on metrics. Obviously metrics can be very helpful and can lead to valuable insights. But perhaps we are, indeed, missing that proverbial “forest” as we expend massive amounts of time and energy to collect data. I believe that in many cases, a data-centric organizational culture can have the unintended consequence of taking people away from those deeply meaningful “aha” moments that you referenced above. I loved reading this! 🙂

    • Joanne Even

      October 9, 2012 at 10:20 pm

      I think these issues are prevalent in almost every industry. Especially now when everyone is trying to more with less, the desire for efficiency is heightened. Thanks for your kind words!

  2. Jeff Nugent

    October 10, 2012 at 8:43 am

    Really enjoyed your post here…you’ve got a unique perspective as someone who has been steeped in marketing practice and can connect the dots to similar or emerging practices in education. Very insightful! While higher education may be enamored with analytics, metrics, data driven decision making…yada yada yada…we rarely see the use effective use of data being put into practice to improve the educational enterprise at the individual university level. I’m not sure many institutions know exactly what to do with all the DATA. Lots of demand and interest…little practice. There certainly is some interesting capacity here for using data to enhance / improve education….it just does not seem to be part of the organizational culture…yet. Many universities seem to be at the “data hoarding” phase….trying to figure out what to do with the info and how it can help them make better decisions.

  3. wallysworld52

    October 12, 2012 at 12:25 am

    I have often heard that you can pretty much make data say whatever you want for it to say. Yet we look for something on which to “hang our hat”. Interesting how you tie all this to adult ed and where we’re going. The future of MOOC’s is yet to be determined. It will be interesting to see how all this unfolds.

  4. bwatwood

    October 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    It was interesting to hear Sebastian Thrun discuss offering his courses to thousands…but also offering to sell lists of top completions to companies. Anyone can take a top course for free…but he can make money connecting the cream of the crop to employers. An interesting data model…as a top performer in his course might not have the prerequisites to get into a “normal” university.

  5. boundlesscognizance

    October 20, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Very interesting post. This is a perspective that I really had not realized. To answer your question, I see myself as much more hands on than with the numbers.

    With the metrics aspect of it, I know some areas were looking at it for a long time. In nursing, we’ve taken standardized exams after each course to measure mastery of the subject in comparison to other programs. At the end we take boards and the pass rate is analyzed every year. Each program gets reports on the weaker areas in order to improve their programs. In medicine, there are 3 different levels of standardized testing which drives the placement in residency. Appropriate use of data isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Without this information, programs could be ill preparing their students.

    At the same time, you are absolutely correct, numbers do not tell the whole story. They may miss out on much of the subjective aspects. They may not give credit in a situation where a student doesn’t hit a benchmark but vastly improves. Or a situation where a teacher has a room full of high needs children and they are brought to a higher level. However, schools and budgets are tight and they need justification and proof. How do you think that this can be solved?


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