Data mining, for better or worse, is having a major impact on numerous facets of American life. While many of the changes have been related to business, especially online business, education is also tapping into the power of data mining in a big way. Much like Netflix and Amazon use consumer data to recommend products and tailor customer experiences, colleges are using student data to help recruit students, offer them career advice, or even to help them excel in their courses. While the practice has its critics, many of whom believe it’s an invasion of privacy and creates a watered-down, prescriptive education system, there is no doubt that the applications and the impact of the data mining will grow in the coming decade. These are just a few of the ways that dating mining will transform higher ed in the coming years, whether students and teachers like it or not.
- It will change how students work together.
Data mining is already changing how students learn and collaborate in their college courses. A popular calculus class at Harvard is a great example. In the course, a computer program pairs students who have different answers to a question posed by the professor, forcing them to defend their answer to their classmate. The course’s professor, Eric Mazur, says this practice helps to stir up debate, gets students thinking critically and creatively, and challenges them to teach one another. "This is grounded on pedagogy; it’s not just the technology," he says. This application, grounded in critical thinking, is a departure from some existing point-and-click data mining systems that don’t encourage students to think outside the box. As the technology develops, students could see even more complex data-based learning systems in the classroom, which ultimately could improve the educational experience for all students.
- It will create a more customized student experience.
Today’s students are used to having a customized user experience. Everything from their televisions to their online shopping is catered to their needs, wants, and interests. Why should college be any different? Data mining will undoubtedly have a big impact on the college experience in coming years, helping students to create a wholly unique and individualized experience based on their needs and career goals. Data mining can be used to provide better advising, help choosing courses, and even homework help from professors, not to mention the applications it can have in helping students finance their education and plan for a future career. Students may even eventually connect with the school through customized online portals that promote information and resources that will help meet student needs and talents.
- Students will get better advising.
Data mining is already playing a major role in advising at many schools around the U.S., and over the coming decade will likely be even more important in helping students make smart decisions about all aspects of their college education. New software can help schools to determine how well students will do in a given course before they even set foot in the classroom, recommending courses and majors based on students’ academic records and previous performance. Students who haven’t fared well in certain courses for their major may be steered toward other careers that are a better fit for their abilities and goals, though some believe this may discourage students from challenging themselves to excel. These kinds of eAdvising systems are already in use, and with new research and refinement will likely become more widely used and more powerfully predictive tools for students.
- It may play a role in how students choose colleges.
Choosing a college can be a tough thing to do, but data mining may make it a little easier on students to find a perfect fit. One company is already getting buzz for its data-based matchmaking services. ConnectEDU‘s CEO Craig Powell imagines that in the future, students won’t even have to apply to college "because an algorithm will have already told them and the schools where they would fit best." The company collects more than 250 data points for each student, including high-school academic records, standardized test scores, financial circumstances, career ambitions, and geographic locations and uses that information to suggest the best college match for students. With 2.5 million students already buying into the company’s services, there’s likely to be some competition on the market soon, as computers begin playing a bigger role in choosing a college.
- It will change college marketing.
Data mining won’t just be important for helping students to choose a college: it’ll also help college choose which students to market its programs to. Colleges can also use the ConnectEdu system to connect with promising prospects, though in the future some may create their own individual portals for students that help the schools determine which applicants are a good fit for their school. This sort of data-based marketing may become the desired alternative to direct-mailing and mass marketing, which could be a good thing. Not only is it less wasteful of time and resources, it also allows colleges to build real relationships with students before they ever reach the campus.
- Data mining could help some students stay in school.
One of the biggest issues in higher education today is retention rates, and schools are always on the lookout for ways to reduce the number of students who drop out. Data mining could be a viable solution, and some schools are already putting it to use. Rio Salado College in Arizona uses data on student performance in online courses to determine who is at risk of underperforming or dropping out. During the first week of class, the program can predict with 70% accuracy the grade a student will get in a course by using an algorithm to monitor and assess online behavior. For those who are struggling, it also allows professors and administrators to reach out and offer help before things get too bad and students feel like dropping out. While the interventions haven’t always been successful, they are making a difference. Students who use the program from day one are 20% less likely to drop out or fail a course.
- Data may help refine the administration of different types of schools.
A $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has helped to sponsor some of the most telling information on data mining to date. The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies has used this grant to study a wide range of higher education institutions, tracking the impact of data mining on the varying organizational structures used in online, brick-and-mortar, and nontraditional universities. The result has been a database that measures 33 variables for the online coursework of 640,000 students, tracking student performance and retention across a broad range of demographic factors. The data can show what works at a specific type of institution, and what doesn’t. One lesson: students who have a high likelihood of dropping out of an online course-based program do better and are more likely to stay in school when they take fewer courses. This kind of information, yielded from data mining, could help each different type of institution better tailor their educational experience to the needs of their students.
- Professors can help struggling students.
Often, professors don’t realize that students are struggling or at risk of failing courses until it’s too late to help. Data mining could help to change that. Online analysis systems can showcase when students are failing, how they can study more, and alert them to potential problems in their educational process. It can also allow professors to better help them with material they don’t understand. Often called Predictive Analytics Reporting Frameworks, these systems are in use at some colleges in the U.S. and while still in their infancy, will undoubtedly be a valuable tool in helping students as the technology evolves and becomes more widely applied.
- Data may help students choose a better career.
While few want to live in a world where their career is chosen by a computer, computers can help students make smarter, more informed decisions about what careers are a good match for them. Using information about student performance, interests, and background, data analysis systems can steer students toward careers that would best suit them. For instance, those who do poorly in classes related to their ideal career may be steered toward an alternate career in a similar filed, or may be motivated to pursue tutoring or other forms of help to meet the mark so they can achieve educational goals. While it isn’t a surefire way to get students matched up with the right career, it can provide invaluable insight and may even suggest careers students themselves might not have considered as options.
- Data analysis will become a key part of the college experience.
Regardless of how it’s applied, one thing is for sure about the future of data mining: it will become a more prominent aspect of the college experience. Beginning before students even set foot on campus, the process can help students to find college matches, sign up for classes, and even decide on a future career. Education experts also predict that colleges will push for more and more information about students, believing that more data means that they can better target learning materials, resources, or help throughout a college career. While this might take away some of the most personal aspects of the college experience, by and large it will also help to refine it and ensure that students get the best value for their money, a boon in a time when college tuition and debt are sky high.