Isn’t technology wonderful? At Purdue University, the same IT infrastructure that enables us to manage student assignments and grades, operate residential and dining facilities, and support a leading community of scientific researchers produces as a byproduct a massive amount of fascinating information.
We know where each student is anytime — which is virtually all the time — their mobile devices are connected to our Wi-Fi network. When they enter their dorm, or dining court, or recreational facility, they swipe in, and a machine captures the time and place.
Whether they’re in class or in their rooms, a machine knows when they’re online and where they’re going while there. Forget that old ominous line, “We know where you live.” These days it’s, “We know where you are.”
University people are curious by nature, and much of today’s “Big Data” era was born at our school. So it’s only natural that we would want to delve into this treasure trove of information in search of illuminating patterns — especially those that might prove helpful to those same students, whose academic success is the heart of our mission.
Does the data say that too many days away from campus, or too many absences from class, or too much in-class browsing of websites unrelated to the course, or too few visits to the gym, correlates with lower grades? Does eating meals with the same people day after day appear to help scholastic performance? If so, shouldn’t we bring this to the students’ attention, for their own good?
For the past two years, virtually every entering Purdue freshman (there is an opt-out option that few exercise) has been given a mobile application through which the university sends them personalized information about ways to improve their chances of academic success.
So far, the information employed and the ways we’re using it have not seemed at all problematic. “Is that combination of courses you chose a historically tough one? Here’s where you can find a tutor.”
“Did you know that students who wait as long as you did to sign up for courses are more likely to struggle? The registrar’s office opens at 8 a.m. tomorrow.”
But that’s today. With the best of motives, schools like ours will feel the urge to use more and more personal data, through more and more insistent tactics, all in the “best interest of the students.”