Marc Parry, Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2012
"Data diggers hope to improve an education system in which professors often fly blind. That's a particular problem in introductory-level courses, says Carol A. Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation. "The typical class, the professor rattles on in front of the class," she says. "They give a midterm exam. Half the kids fail. Half the kids drop out. And they have no idea what's going on with their students."
"As more of this technology comes online, it raises new tensions. What role does a professor play when an algorithm recommends the next lesson? If colleges can predict failure, should they steer students away from challenges? When paths are so tailored, do campuses cease to be places of exploration?
""We're steering students toward the classes where they are predicted to make better grades," Mr. Denley says. The predictions, he adds, turn out accurate within about half a letter grade, on average.
"The prediction process is more subtle than getting a suggestion to watch Goodfellasbecause you liked The Godfather. Take the hypothetical health major encouraged to take physics. The software sifts through a database of hundreds of thousands of grades other students have received. It analyzes the historical data to figure out how much weight to assign each piece of the health major's own academic record in forecasting how she will do in a particular course. Success in math is strongly predictive of success in physics, for example. So if her transcript and ACT score indicate a history of doing well in math, physics would probably be recommended over biology, though both satisfy the same core science requirement.
"Mr. Denley points to a spate of recent books by behavioral economists, all with a common theme: When presented with many options and little information, people find it difficult to make wise choices. The same goes for college students trying to construct a schedule, he says. They know they must take a social-science class, but they don't know the implications of taking political science versus psychology versus economics. They choose on the basis of course descriptions or to avoid having to wake up for an 8 a.m. class on Monday. Every year, students in Tennessee lose their state scholarships because they fall a hair short of the GPA cutoff, Mr. Denley says, a financial swing that "massively changes their likelihood of graduating."
""When students do indeed take the courses that are recommended to them, they actually do substantially better," he says. And take them they do. Last fall 45 percent of classes on students' schedules were from the top-10 recommendations, and 57 percent from the top 15. Though these systems are in their infancy, the concept is taking hold. Three other Tennessee colleges have adopted Mr. Denley's software, and some institutions outside the state are developing their own spins on the idea."