Digital Nannying on Campus

An article co-published by the New
York Times
and Chronicle
of Higher Education
reports that several universities now engage in student
data mining. Electronic monitoring systems collect bits of digital information
to create databases of profiles by tracking, timing, and tallying student
activities like swiping ID badges or working on online assignments.

The data collected are useful. But the resulting choice
architecture values quantitative success over qualitative student growth and
responsibility. Proponents rejoice that professors can be alerted to at-risk
students, based on the infrequency of a particular student logging onto his
online student portal or swiping his ID to access tutoring centers. Another
feature, using an algorithm akin to that of Netflix, nudges students towards
classes and majors that fit their personalities, perhaps recommending physics
over biology for a student with high math grades, or prompting another student
to major in English because his student profile matches the history and profile
of other successful English majors. When the data is fed into a statistical
formula that calculates the likelihood of student success, a computerized
“e-advisor” can declare a student “off-track” and effectively halt him from
pursing his major if his initial grades do not seem statistically high enough
to result in graduation. The student is then forced to choose a new
major. 

True, such monitoring will prevent some students from
endlessly changing majors or dropping out altogether. But in effect, this is
school-sanctioned electronic stalking.  The nanny-like “e-advisor”
underestimates students’ abilities to make responsible decisions and
professors’ abilities (and duties) to effectively mentor students.  If the
information is to be used at all, it should be given to students advised by an
in-person counselor, not fed into an algorithm that spits out prescriptions by
email. Heaven help us if colleges become the new all-monitoring helicopter
parents. 

Rachelle Peterson

Rachelle Peterson is Policy Director at the National Association of Scholars.

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