Big data analytics met with skepticism & hope

Late last month Marist College was featured in The Wall Street Journal for its development and usage of data software that utilizes predictive analytics to calculate if a student will fail within the first three weeks of a semester. As of now the analytic software, which was developed under the leadership of CIO Bill Thirsk and the School of Computer Science & Mathematics, is implemented only in the School of Management’s 100% Online Master of Public Administration program but Thirsk notes that this program will expand to more academic schools in the future. While this technological innovation provided Marist with a little media prestige, the implications of data insight leaves students and faculty questioning the shift to what may be perceived as a colder, more impersonal academic technique.

“Demonstrating knowledge is more important than opening files,” says Dr. JoAnne Myers, Professor and Chair of the Political Science department. “I’m skeptical, because if I look at my on-line stats, there is a warning NOT to use them to calculate performance per se. How can you be certain that someone did not just print out the material and spend time with it off-line, vs. someone who has the resource open for longer while they did something else?” While Dr. Myers’ comments reflect the air of skepticism coming from some academic disciplines, some students hold a different opinion.

Hancock Center, location of the School of Computer Science & Mathematics

Hancock Center, location of the School of Computer Science & Mathematics

Justin Hermann is a graduate student here at Marist College getting his Masters in Information Systems. While his masters program does not actively utilize the data analytic software, as an online graduate student he claims to understand its importance. “As online students we have very limited access to the professor as obviously we’re not in a classroom two to three times a week. The software allows the professors to get an additional insight into the students’ work that they normally would not be able to get through say e-mail.” When asked how felt this could be used in traditional courses where students have physical class, Hermann agreed that while it should not be used as the primary source of performance calculation, it could aid some professors in their evaluation.

With Marist’s history of being one of the “25 most connected campuses” in America, and Thirsk’s innovative vision of implementing big data and cloud technology into academia, it’s safe to say that this analytic software will only expand with time. And is that such a bad thing? Regardless of student or faculty skepticism to this new piece of technology, in the article Thirsk explained how the software’s analytics models have already been used ‘to predict academic trouble for thousands of students inside and outside the Marist community’. Likewise, although the Center for Advising and Academic Services and the Center for Career Services could not provide any in-depth information on the subject, both departments have been identified as areas where this software could be implemented to additionally assist students.

For now it seems the program will be limited to graduate students but with so many opportunities for utilization, the program’s only threat to growth may lie in the skepticism of faculty members who prefer a more traditional model of grading.

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