Higher Education and the Perfect Data Storm

May 09, 2012 |  David Clemens

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Higher Education and the Perfect Data Storm

May 09, 2012 | 

David Clemens

Consensus has it that we are living in the Age of Big Data.  When our college president was hired, he declared himself “data driven”; during interviews for vice president of academic affairs, all three finalists announced that they, too, were “data driven” (though none could articulate a clear image of what higher education might look like ten years from now).  So what does “data driven” mean?  Every day, our digital helpmeets dump petabytes of data into our cringing neural pathways.  We are besotted with data; we’ve never had so much of the stuff.  But to be data driven sounds uncomfortably like Captain Ahab (who was whale driven).

The words “data driven” are gang members; when I hear them, I can be sure the words “outcomes” and “a culture of evidence” are slouching around nearby and will shortly make an appearance.  Often, data is announced (as if newly arrived from Mount Sinai) in totals, aggregates, medians, percentages, rates, multipliers—but then the data just piles up in corners and collects under the bed. 

Frankly, I don’t have much confidence in data’s probative value.  Even though digits and stats supply a comforting sense of measurement, certitude, and solidity, data alone is still the smallest particle of information, no matter how much of it accumulates.  Data by itself is inert, like Frankenstein’s monster, patched together and waiting for a lightning bolt.  Sometimes it waits a long time.  It may seem irrefutable, but until data is analyzed, it just lays there.  Remembering Christmas presents from his childhood in Wales, Dylan Thomas recalled receiving “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why."

“Data driven” is a gift from the vocabulary of business.  On his blog, Evan Miller, President, CEO, and co-owner of Hertzler Systems Inc., writes:

As one colleague put it to me recently: “Most people have tons of data everywhere you turn, but most of that data isn’t accessible or usable.” This is an important incongruity: We say we want to be data driven, but most of us are not.

He continues:

Data may be cheap but not usable and therefore of little value. Often we don’t agree on underlying assumptions used to classify or assign meaning to data so the data are not reliable or valid [my emphasis].

In these situations very talented people may spend hours and hours of precious time to cut, paste and scrub data so that it becomes usable. The result is expensive data that appears too late to provide timely guidance.

In education, data always arrives too late, like Inspector Clouseau, blundering into a scene, oblivious to what’s really going on or who the villain is.  The kind of information data yields is retrospective, not predictive.  Correlation, as we know, is not causation.  To this, I would add mathematization is not explanation. I just learned “mathematization” is among the “bottom 20% of lookups” in the online Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary; what exactly does this tell me? 

Education managers and institutional researchers gather bushels of data, look for patterns, devise schema from which they make models that they hope are predictive in order to guide decisions and behavior.  But error in any of these moving parts can create failure.  Incomplete or irrelevant data, patterns that are Rorschach blots, rickety schema, or Rube Goldberg models all leave data driven managers concussed by reality. 

Even analyzed data is haunted by forging, fudging, trimming, and cooking, along with confirmation bias and egocentric thinking.  Data at my college concludes that we have a low transfer rate to four year schools, a big no-no these thrifty days.  Turns out the data only includes transfers to state schools. The data is blissfully unaware of transfers to private or out-of-state schools, yet I can name former students currently at Columbia, Saint Mary’s, Shimer, Willamette, Redlands, Mills, and California Lutheran.  So the picture painted by the transfer data is not remotely congruent with reality even though serious budgetary and program decisions will be based on its inaccuracy. 

While knowing full well data’s vulnerability, education managers cannot resist the temptation to be data driven because data absolves them of responsibility; to be data driven lets them say “the data made me do it” (hat tip to Flip Wilson).

As with so many things, Neil Postman was prophetic about the data tsunami.  Even before Big Data, he wrote:

Like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, we are awash in information, without even a broom to help us get rid of it. The tie between information and human purpose has been severed. Information is now a commodity that is bought and sold; it comes indiscriminately, whether asked for or not, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume, at high speeds, disconnected from meaning and import. It comes unquestioned and uncombined, and we do not have, as [Edna St. Vincent] Millay said, a loom to weave it all into fabric. No transcendent narratives to provide us with moral guidance, social purpose, intellectual economy. No stories to tell us what we need to know, and especially what we do not need to know.

Without such narratives, we discover that information does not touch any of the important problems of life. If there are children starving in Somalia, or any other place, it has nothing to do with inadequate information. If our oceans are polluted and the rain forests depleted, it has nothing to do with inadequate information.

I am going to make a radical suggestion about data and higher education:  colleges and universities will be better served if they avoid kneeling at the altar of data and instead fill key positions with people driven by intuition, experience, values, conviction, and principle.  A good place to start would be looking for leadership guided by a transcendent educational narrative.

David Clemens teaches English at Monterey Peninsula College, where he founded and coordinates the Great Books Certificate Program. 

Julie Brown Smith

| May 12, 2012 - 2:16 AM

I do not understand why anyone or any institution would want to be data driven. I can only picture in my mind a scene from a science fiction series that showed students brainwashed by aliens who had taken over a school. All were seated in front of computers, staring into screens, mindlessly typing the data that was being directly entered into their brains. They had become mindless channels for data, instead of critical thinkers. They were not only kneeling at the altar of data, it was flowing through them without their knowledge or consent. We need more professors who will disconnect the brain from all of the data we are ingesting each day, and connect it to the analog version of knowledge—actual books, with pages that require hands to turn them, off a keyboard, and without any screens. The data with which administrators should deal should be gleaned directly from asking those dedicated professors about actual classroom experiences, instead of relying on unreliable numbers.


| May 14, 2012 - 2:44 PM

“...colleges and universities will be better served if they avoid kneeling at the altar of data and instead fill key positions with people driven by intuition, experience, values, conviction, and principle.  A good place to start would be looking for leadership guided by a transcendent educational narrative.”

In other words, all this data and math stuff is just so confusing. Let’s continue to hire innumerate “intuitionists” unable to back their opinions with facts.

Having said that, I agree with the author’s point that “big data” is a trendy buzzword, and that most people who claim to be data-driven have no idea what they are talking about.

Fundamentally though, data—beginning with the evidence of the senses—are the starting point for all knowledge. So to dismiss data as such is to dismiss rational, reality-based thought.

J Maguire

| May 14, 2012 - 3:08 PM

Well, from my observation of business managers, “data driven” is just a phrase of the month (year, decade) to indicate membership and status. If you asked these managers to explain the difference between data and theory, 95 per cent of them would scratch their heads, and 99 per cent would not know why the question matters. Almost no one knows that a cause-effect theory has meaning, and a deluge of data points cannot. “Data-driven” is a mindless phrase, used by the mindless. It means no more than “23 skidoo.”

John Blake

| May 14, 2012 - 3:33 PM

As a quant-model hedge-fund trader, making sense of markets means just the opposite:  As patterns exist largely in the eyes of their beholders, so their implications are entirely qualitative—not “data driven,” but matters of perception only.  What you see is always what you wish to see… contingent “reality” as such is unknown, unknowable.

In this respect, the difference between education and mere opinion, “training,” becomes absolute.  Either one’s intellectual background prepares a philosophy of the real world, encompassing behavioral means vs. ends in historical context and perspective, or rote mechanics will dissolve your insubstantial pageant in short order, leaving not a wrack behind.

Architects and engineers erect magnificent structures, from St. Paul’s to the Golden Gate.  Their educated sponsors ask not simply, “Will this stand?” but “why a bridge or a cathedral?”  These are civilizational questions, quite beyond bean-counting.  Yet of all people, University Presidents seem the last to know.









John Skookum

| May 14, 2012 - 4:01 PM

Shorter Clemens:

“So what if half my students flip hamburgers and pour coffee for a living? Who gives a damn what percentage of them are in default on their loans?  There’s a TRANSCENDENT NARRATIVE to impart, people!”

grey eagle

| May 14, 2012 - 6:09 PM

The statistics department can provide suggestions on evaluating the representativeness of the sample that provides the data.

The market research department or the psych department can develop samples.  They are trained to rewrite questionnaires so the the wording does not predetermine results.

The graphic arts department can print questionaires and theatre arts can provide students who can assume the roles of impartial but trustworthy inquisitors.  Alternatively computer science can administer the questionnaires on-line.

Justice majors can track down the people whom you intend to interview. 

And then statistics department can analyse the projectibility of the answers with typing class providing data entry and computer science programing and tabulations. 

Market research and psych majors can tell you what the data means, theatre arts will prepare and delivery the presentation.

Peter Suedfeld

| May 16, 2012 - 9:47 AM

Without commenting on the merits of the article, I would appreciate it if NAS (even if nobody else) could remember that “data” is a plural noun and requires a plural verb.  I have more or less given up on “media,” but I would like “data” to survive if possible.

David Clemens

| May 16, 2012 - 1:40 PM

Thanks for your comment, Mr. Suedfeld.  I share your misgivings about both “media” and “data.”  Be assured that my usage was deliberate and that both I and the NAS know that “data” is the Latin neuter plural of “datum.”  However, in English, “data” used as singular has gained acceptance even since the days of Strunk and White.  My Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition (1993) says this, “Today, DATA is used in English both as a plural noun meaning ‘facts or pieces of information’ . . . and as a singular mass noun meaning `information’ . . . .”  Sixty percent of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition (2000) Usage Panel accept singular usage.  Stylistically, as I was trying to personify data for amusing effect, it was necessary for me to use the word in its English singular sense.