Could data decide the fate Of higher education?

Read Time 6 Mins
Learning & Development

The collection of data is a sensitive issue for many, but the potential benefits for learners are considerable – as seen in the corporate sector.

The start of a new year is a time for reflection as we revisit the past and imagine the future. Cementing this fact are the countless “best of” and “predictions for” lists that clog our newsfeeds. It’s part and parcel of January, and yet it’s still difficult to shrug the feeling that major changes could well be on the horizon for education.

The winds of change certainly seem to have picked up: faith in higher education is clearly foundering. This is not a matter of speculation; it is a submission of fact.

A recent survey by the think tank New America reveals that while three-quarters of Americans believe in the power of a college degree to build a successful career, less than half feel that private non-profits are actually worth their cost. And this seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Mounting reports reveal a groundswell of negative public sentiment toward higher education. Fewer people believe that it represents a worthwhile investment (or even a necessary one) for career success, while more are willing to denounce colleges for prioritizing their own bottom lines over learners’ needs.

Added to this deterioration of public confidence is the growing disconnect between higher ed and the needs of the corporate sector.

For instance, when asked whether college courses were effectively preparing graduates for the workforce, 96 of percent chief academic officers responded that they were. What’s troubling about this is that when the same question was put to business leaders, just 11 percent agreed.

Responding to business needs

That growing disparity in outlook isn’t just something that’s evident in surveys or reports. Companies are actively responding to the deficiency in skills by developing their own courses and training programs. Some are pooling their considerable resources in an effort to plug the skills gap. For example, the Internet of Learning Consortium, which was created to train and provide job-ready talent to employers, is a venture supported by Accenture, Boeing, and Microsoft, among others.

Other business leaders, such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniaki, are working with for-profit schools to develop customized training programs, while the likes of Linux and Microsoft are spreading their nets by teaming up with edX (originally founded by Harvard University and MIT) to provide online training.

As a result, institutes of higher education are no longer just competing with one another for students – they are competing with companies that are determining market trends, developing cutting-edge technologies, and sustaining their growth and development by continuously upskilling their workforce.

Institutes of higher education are no longer just competing with one another for students; they are competing with the companies that are determining market trends. Click To Tweet

This is a natural consequence of what Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report describes as the problem of higher-education institutions operating “at a 19th-century pace to keep up with the fast-changing demands of 21st-century employers”.

Cheaper, more relevant, and high quality

Cost, responsiveness, and relevance are all advantages that company-run courses enjoy over those offered by institutes of higher education. They are also becoming more sophisticated, nurturing universally sought-after skills such as critical thinking and collaboration alongside more specialized workplace-related skills.

Companies are starting to recognize how employees actually learn and allowing them to do it in the way they wish. Click To Tweet

A key element in attaining this higher quality is what’s been referred to as the world’s most valuable resource – data.

Data: “The new oil”

Any company offering an online service today must be adept at data collection and analysis, but the activities of major tech players such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon are light years ahead of everyone else. The reason for this is that data is vital in helping them improve their products. This in turn helps attract more users and solidify market dominance.

This is relevant to higher education because it is these same companies that are now utilizing their expertise with data to spearhead more in-depth training programs. Their goal is to develop a workforce that learns continuously so it can easily adapt and cope with emerging trends or fluctuating market demands.

This is a relatively new development in workplace training. Just a decade ago employees would undergo top-down company training using a specific learning tool or platform. Now, they are given access to multiple applications so they can direct their own learning as well as spend time developing a broader skill set.

And it is data that has helped lead this transition.

“Companies are starting to recognize how employees actually learn and allowing them to do it in the way they wish rather than forcing them into a draconian system,” says Jon Ingham, a consultant in human capital management, in a piece of IBM-sponsored content appearing in The Atlantic.

“The opportunity is not to use analytics to control,” says Ingham, “but to give employees meaningful data about the way they’re operating within an organization so that they themselves can do things to improve their working lives and their performance.”

Back to school for higher education?

While data gives companies the insights they need to quickly create and modify their training programs, change in higher education is far more sluggish.

“The challenging thing for colleges,” says edX’s Lee Rubenstein “is that technology changes so quickly that by the time you get your program up and running, you have to make a lot of changes and updates to keep it relevant.”

However, the odd thing about the current status quo is that data – the driver of change in the corporate sector – is actually abundant in higher education. It is just not well used, as Arjun Singh points out in a piece for EdSurge:

“The most obvious sign that measuring learning is not a priority in higher ed is that administrators and educators throw away so much data about it. Instructors spend hours looking at how each student arrives at an answer … but then compress all of that information down to a single grade that omits the nuance and specific areas of improvement for a student.”

Singh goes on to bemoan the wasted opportunity for colleges that are failing to harness the data at their disposal.

“If instructors could effortlessly measure student progress on every learning outcome, they would have the information they need to understand which parts of their courses need most attention.”

Such information, he claims, could be used to predict student performance on future assignments, thus allowing educators to provide targeted interventions to provide extra support and guidance before tests.

Waiting for change – data in higher education

Despite the wealth of available information, data in higher education is effectively defunct without the means of capturing and analyzing it. A key part of the success of corporate training programs is that companies are willing to invest in technology that allows them to properly use data. They are also well-versed in interoperability, whereby new technologies can be quickly and easily integrated with others.

This also means that the playing field needn’t be so lopsided.

If businesses can quickly adopt new technologies to improve their day-to-day operations and training programs, why shouldn’t colleges do the same? Institutes of higher education have similar access to cutting-edge technologies that can plug directly into their existing systems and save them time and resources. Equally important is the fact that the engineers behind this technology can continue to innovate behind the scenes so it remains at the cutting edge.

If businesses can move quickly to use new technologies to improve their day-to-day operations and training programs, why shouldn’t colleges do the same? Click To Tweet

However, despite data’s power to improve learning outcomes, for many, collecting student data raises several red flags concerning privacy – and justifiably so. Breaches, hacks, and commercial misuse have damaged the public’s perception of how data is collected and even put to use.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the laws concerning data collection in the US are often hazy and sometimes even contradictory. In fact, there is no comprehensive law in the US regulating the collection and use of personal data. As a result, rebuilding public faith in how data is used is a challenge, but a worthwhile one.

“We need to build trust that this data no matter how it is collected, is being used safely to improve student outcomes,” writes Aimee Rogstad Guidera in the Huffington Post.

If data is not being utilized to serve student achievement, then it is in danger of undermining it. However, so too is willfully ignoring the potential for data to improve how learners learn. Click To Tweet

The information that learners generate must be used to serve their interests, giving them greater insights, loftier goals, and clear pathways to achieving those goals. If data is not being utilized to serve student achievement, then it is in danger of undermining it. However, so too is willfully ignoring the potential for data to improve how learners learn.

“We have more robust education data than ever,” writes Rogstad Guidera, “and through analysis researchers are able to turn this data into information that can be used to invest our scarce resources of time, energy, and money into what is proven to support learning. This evidence is critical, as no sector is more important to the health and security of our nation than education.”

Micheál Heffernan

Senior Editor

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