Big Data Companies Come to Universities


Candace M. Thille was one of the first people that helped kick-off the move to bring big data to college teaching. She founded the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, won millions of dollars in grants, and has been one of the biggest fixtures on the lecture circuit that deals with data-powered algorithms that serve content keyed to what a student is ready to learn next. Many publishers, venture-capital investors, and foundations have followed her head. These companies are gaining big contracts with colleges and promising a “robot tutor” for students that are struggling with their coursework.

Although this might seem like a dream come true, Ms. Thille has started to have darker thoughts about the industry that she helped spark.  Specifically, she doesn’t believe that professors and higher-education leaders should be letting these companies take the lead in shaping the learning-analytics market. She wants more involvement from educators instead of taking a backseat in the matter. Educators have a better understanding of predicting when a student needs to be delivered new material or when their just not ready yet. By allowing companies to have this power, it allows them to dictate when a student is ready when they might not be.

Universities are the ideal living laboratories for these teaching systems and should be tested with quick feedback after. Some of the decisions when developing the learning software will be hidden from professors and colleges. They won’t truly understand how and where the software believes a student should move on to the next topic. This is essential part of algorithm-based software that is both concerning and unnerving. It’s important for universities to work with companies that they hire so the software created has the students and their education in mind.

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