Guidelines for using big data to improve colleges

A group of researchers and other interested parties recently made suggestions about how big data from higher ed can be used for good within higher ed:

To Stevens and others, this massive data is full of promise –­­ but also peril. The researchers talk excitedly about big data helping higher education discover its Holy Grail: learning that is so deeply personalized that it both keeps struggling students from dropping out and pushes star performers to excel…

The guidelines center on four core ideas. The first calls on all players in higher education, including students and vendors, to recognize that data collection is a joint venture with clearly defined goals and limits. The second states that students be told how their data are collected and analyzed, and be allowed to appeal what they see as misinformation. The third emphasizes that schools have an obligation to use data-driven insights to improve their teaching. And the fourth establishes that education is about opening up opportunities for students, not closing them.

While numbers one and two deal with handling the data, numbers three and four discuss the purposes: will the data actually help students in the long run? Such data could serve a lot of interested parties: faculty, administrators, alumni, donors, governments, accreditation groups, and others. I suspect faculty would be worried that administrators would try to squeeze more efficiencies out of the college, donors might want to see what exactly is going on at college, the government could set new regulatory guidelines, etc.

Yet, big data doesn’t necessarily provide quick answers to these purposes even as it might provide insights into broader patterns. Take improving teaching: there is a lot of disagreement over this topic. Or, opening opportunities for students: which ones? Who chooses which options students should have?

One takeaway: big data offers much potential to see new patterns and give decision makers better tools. However, it does not guarantee better or worse outcomes; it can be used well or misused like any sense of data. I like the idea of getting out ahead of the data to set some common guidelines but I imagine it will take some time to work out best practices.

Determining “essential concepts” and “essential competencies” for sociology

A new book suggests academic disciplines – like sociology – would benefit from defining “essential concepts” and “essential competencies.” Here are some of the outcomes for sociology:

To come up with learning outcomes in the selected six disciplines, which collectively account for more than 35 percent of undergraduate student majors in the U.S., the Measuring College Learning project began by contacting disciplinary ssociations in each field. Those groups helped select 10 to 15 faculty members to lead the work — a total of 70 professors participated…

In sociology, for example, one of the five essential concepts is the “sociological eye,” which means students “will recognize key theoretical frameworks and assumptions upon which the discipline is founded and differentiated from other social sciences.” That underpinning, the book said, includes founding theoretical traditions (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Mead), a critique of rationality to explain human behavior and how social forces affect individuals.

Socialization is another essential concept, which is defined as students understanding the relationship between self and society, and how the self is socially constructed and maintained at multiple levels.

On the competency side, the panel said undergraduates in sociology should be able to apply scientific principles to understand the social world, evaluate the quality of social scientific data and use sociological knowledge to inform policy debates and promote understanding, among other essential competencies (there are six total).

I imagine this would generate a lot of discussion among sociologists about the merits of these kinds of outcomes, what is essential to the discipline (particularly at the undergraduate level), and how these might be accurately assessed.

On this general topic, is sociology uniquely positioned because of its emphases and skills (ability to see the big picture, focus on social structures, variety of methods, etc.) to contribute to assessment conversations?

Can sociology classes keep up with the latest happenings in society?

A recent analysis of the top assigned sociology texts in the Open Syllabus Project has a number of interesting findings including a large number of texts from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s:

Sociology is a dynamic discipline, so the inclusion of many texts published in the past 30 years is not surprising. Nor is the continued importance of the foundational sociology texts published between 1850 and 1950. But perhaps we can see another kind of generational dynamic at work here. Most of the OSP collection comes from courses taught between 2006 and 2014. Perhaps the emphasis on works published from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s reflects a process of canonization that takes roughly 10 or 15 years, as faculty in their 40s become senior faculty in their 50s or 60s, balanced by the need to assign material that is still feels relevant to the analysis of contemporary problems, which may have a roughly similar temporal horizon. Again, the OSP offers only some data points, at present, toward an understanding of contemporary sociological knowledge. But they are suggestive ones and worth further exploration as the data set matures.

This argument makes sense: sociology faculty will tend to assign texts they are familiar with and that is likely material they know from graduate school as well work that informs their own.

But, it does raise some interesting larger questions:

  1. Certainly, it takes some time to put together good research that involves theory, data collection and analysis, and thinking about the implications. Yet, this lag in texts and current events means that individual faculty have to find ways to bridge the gap. I’m not sure the answer is to significantly speed up the publication process with journal articles and books – as it can often take years – as this limits the times needed to develop good analysis. It does suggest that other outlets – like blogs or op-eds or more popular books – might offer a solution and this may mean such work should count for something in the discipline.
  2. How much does the knowledge of faculty “freeze” in what they learned in their training or from their early career? I remember hearing that sociologists may know the most when they were doing their comprehensive exams. How well can people keep up with all the literature that arises, particularly if they have heavy teaching loads?
  3. This suggests that a lot of sociological classwork involves historical analysis as the texts used as typically from enough years ago that students don’t know all of the details of the context. How good are sociologists at doing historical analysis with undergraduates?

Haidt argues Anthro and Soc are the worst academic monocultures

Jonathan Haidt discusses the monoculture of academia and names two disciplines that may be the worst:

JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.

JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism.  Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

Interesting view from the outside as Haidt says later in the interview, “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists.” From the inside, a lot of sociology faculty and students seem to be at least partly motivated by wanting to address particular social issues or problems. Whether that clouds their research judgment more than social psychologists – who just want to understand the world, as any scientist would claim – would be interesting to explore.

If you haven’t read it, Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is fascinating. He argues that opposing sides – say in politics or academic disciplines – have different narratives about how the world works and this causes them to simply talk past each other. In a 2012 piece, Haidt describes the moral narratives of the American political left and right:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Holding so tightly to different understandings of the world means that compromising is very difficult.

Debate over data on the mental fragility of college students

A recent study suggests there is a need for more data to claim that today’s college students are more fragile:

The point, overall, is that given the dizzying array of possible factors at work here, it’s much too pat a story to say that kids are getting more “fragile” as a result of some cultural bugaboo. “I think it’s not only an oversimplification, I think it’s unfair to the kids, many of whom are very hardworking and tremendously diligent, and working in systems that are often very competitive,” said Schwartz. “Many of the kids are doing extraordinarily well, and I think it’s unfair to portray this whole group of people as being somehow weakhearted or weak-minded in some sense, when there’s no evidence to really support it.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed among those who study college mental health that there’s an interesting divide at work here: College counselors are so convinced kids’ mental health is getting worse that it’s become dogma in some quarters, and yet it’s been tricky to find any solid, rigorous evidence of this. Some researchers have tried to dig into counseling-center data in an attempt to explain this discrepancy. One recent effort, published in the October issue of the Journal of College Student Psychopathology, comes from Allan J. Schwartz, a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester who has devoted a chunk of his career to studying college suicide. Schwartz examined data from “4,755 clients spanning a 15-year period from 1992-2007” at one university, poring over the records to determine whether students who came in contact with that school’s counseling services had, over that period, exhibited increasing levels of distress in the form of suicidality, anxiety and phobic disorders, overall signs of serious mental illness, and other measures. (The same caveat I mentioned above applies here — such a study can only tell us about rates of pathology among kids who go to counseling centers. But it can at least help determine whether counselors are right that among the kids they see every day, things are getting worse.)

Schwartz found no evidence to support the pessimistic view. With the exception of suicidality, where he noted a “significant decline” over the years, every other measure he looked at held stable over the study’s 15-year span. In his paper, Schwartz rightly notes that there are limitations to what we can extrapolate from a study of a single campus. But he goes on to explain that four other, similar studies, published between 1996 and 2007, also sought to track changes in pathology over time in single-university settings, and they too found no empirical evidence that things have been getting worse. This doesn’t definitively prove that kids who seek counseling aren’t getting sicker, of course. But statistically, Schwartz argues, it’s unlikely that five studies looking at different schools would all come up with null findings if, in fact, there was a widespread increase in student pathology overall.

I don’t know this area of research but it sounds like there is room for disagreement and/or need for more definitive data about what is going on among college students.

A broader observation: claims about cultural zeitgeists are not always backed with data. On one hand, perhaps the change is coming so quickly or underneath the radar (it takes time for scientists and others to measure things) that data simply can’t be found. On the other hand, claims about trends are often based on anecdotes and particular points of view that break down pretty quickly when compared to data that is available.

The best ranked online sociology programs

I am not familiar with many online sociology programs but TheBestSchools.org has a ranking of the top options:

New Mexico State University’s distance education bachelor’s degree in sociology was ranked 10th in the nation for 2015-16 by TheBestSchools.org, an independent organization that focuses its ranking system on quality of programs, types of courses provided and faculty strength as well as school awards, rankings and reputation…

NMSU was listed on among the top 10 on TheBestSchools.org’s top 25 list for online sociology undergraduate programs behind schools such as Arizona State University, University of Colorado Denver and Oregon State University…

“Most of the faculty members are doing work on social issues that reflect life on the border or in the desert Southwest. So a student who lives in Toronto, Canada will take courses, not only on the basics of Sociology, such as social theory, methods, statistics, deviance, the family, etc., but they also will have an opportunity to take courses that reflect a part of the world that is so politically relevant. And they are taking these courses from faculty members who are living in that place of study. We are here.”

NMSU’s distance education bachelor’s program in sociology has grown since it began in 2003 and now serves approximately 120 majors.

See the full list of top sociology programs according to TheBestSchools.org here. There is an interesting mix of research schools (including several state system flagship schools) alongside other public and private options. The programs were selected according to these criteria:

We selected the degree programs based on the quality of the program, types of courses provided, and faculty strength, as well as school awards, rankings, and reputation.

Not surprisingly, there is not much overlap between this list and rankings of sociology programs according to sociologists and other academics. Yet, this second set of rankings is typically based on Ph.D. programs which is not going to be of use to many undergraduates. Is this list then that unusual if solely focused on sociology bachelor degrees?

“The Sociology of Harry Potter” course about culture

Taking advantage of student’s knowledge of the Harry Potter series, one sociology instructor is using “The Sociology of Harry Potter” to teach about culture:

“The basic idea is to have students use sociology to analyze the society of the wizardly world to be able to understand and compare and contrast between the Muggle world and the witching world,” Vandivier said.

About 30 students are taking the course, which Vandivier said is a large number for an online course, but she is glad for the active participation.

“Many of them are big Harry Potter fans. They get into arguments — not online, but when I’ve talked to some on campus — who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy and who’s the Hufflepuff, and what that’s got to do with anything. It’s just so fun listening to them, and they are really emotionally invested in the different houses, in the different characters, in the different circumstances that happened and where they think things came from. Just all the ideology; it’s almost like a religion,” she said…

“If I were to teach a class on say, the cultures of India, I would first have to educate them on what the culture of India is. But in this situation, they already know, they already have it down,” she said. “And I’m just facilitating a compare and contrast, what’s the theme, what’s the difference, and what does that mean for each society? So that’s the great thing about Harry Potter.”

Why not use what students already know in order to demonstrate sociological concepts? And with the new Harry Potter play in the works, this might be a good time to capitalize on continued interest.

While the sociological study of pop culture may have been taboo decades ago, it is increasingly common today. The impact of such narratives are hard to deny, even as other traditional institutions (nations, families, race and class structures, education systems, etc.) draw ongoing attention.