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.

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.

Intro to Sociology with 82 year old “godfather of Canadian menswear”

I imagine Intro to Sociology might be a little different with a 82 year old menswear magnate in class:

Even in his school duds — no tie, sometimes even jeans, if you can believe it — Harry Rosen was the best-dressed student this fall in Intro Sociology.

“I dress casually for class, but never without a jacket,” stated the godfather of Canadian menswear, who, at 82, decided this year to start studying humanities at Ryerson University.

He has been excused from exams because he still juggles part-time duty with his luxury clothing empire — he has a meeting Friday with a customer who still prefers to “Ask Harry,” semi-retired or not; some are now fourth-generation clients. He also fundraises for Bridgepoint Health and the University Health Network’s stem-cell team that created a research chair in his name, and serves on boards of institutions such as Ryerson…

History Prof. Martin Greig said he enjoyed the “octogenarian sitting amongst the 17- and 18-year-olds who made up the bulk of this first year course on medieval Europe. He was very attentive and seemed genuinely appreciative of my efforts. It was fun to have him there and I hope that he follows through with his intention to take my Cold War course in the winter term.”

“I love learning and I need that activity, in good measure because of my regrets at not getting a university-level education when I was young,” said Rosen, a self-taught retail mogul who went from high school straight to work, opening a modest men’s shop with his brother and then spending the next 60 years learning what he needed from carefully chosen partners.

It is good to hear about life-long learners who want to find out more about the world. Of course, this doesn’t have to happen in a college classroom. Yet, I think his example could go a long way with younger college students. With some of the figures about student learning in college and completion rates, his interaction with students might be the most valuable thing that happens in the classroom.

Studies suggest texting in class is related to lower grades, GPA

Several studies in recent years have examined the link between students texting and using Facebook in in class and their grades. The Chicago Tribune summarizes the studies:

In the past five years researchers have published the results of five surveys and experiments that link texting and Facebooking with lower academic performance. In 2011, researchers at California State University reported that students who received or sent a high number of text messages during a video recorded lecture scored worse on a quiz than those who received or sent few or no text messages.

In a 2012 study, a researcher at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania surveyed 1,800 students about how often they Facebook, instant message, email, text, search online and talk on the phone in class. Among the results: 69 percent of students reported they had texted in class, and students who texted or used Facebook more frequently in class had lower overall semester GPAs. The author of that study, Reynol Junco, also co-wrote a study that linked texting and Facebooking during study time with lower GPAs…

“That I can be definitive about: That’s not working. If you’re going to search (online) during class, I don’t have any data telling you to stop. If you’re going to email during class, I don’t have any data to tell you to stop. But do not text or Facebook during class. Do not text or Facebook while you’re studying for your classes, because that’s another area where this is definitely a negative.”…

Junco’s evidence against texting and Facebooking is correlational, meaning that his studies show that students who Facebook or text more in class or while studying do worse academically, but not that the texting or Facebooking itself is causing the problem. It’s possible that, say, an easily distractible student is texting a lot and doing poorly in class, with the underlying cause of poor performance being the distractibility, not the texting. But Junco points to two other college studies in which researchers, not students, largely determined which students would do the most media multitasking in class.

In both the studies — the California State study and one published in 2012 in the journal Computers and Education — a form of media multitasking (texting or Facebooking) was linked to lower student performance.

It would be interesting to pair data like this with student’s perceptions of whether they are doing better or worse in a class because they are texting, browsing, or not. It would be one thing if students knew that texting was distracting and did it anyway and yet another thing if they were so used to texting that they were unaware of its possible effects.

Let’s say future studies more clearly establish a causal link. Would colleges then move to banning cell phone use or Facebooking in class? Or is this one of those areas that would generate a lot of negative feedback from students who would want the freedom to do more of what they want in class?

College freshman more confident than ever about their abilities compared to their peers

Data from the American Freshman Survey suggests new college freshman are more confident about their abilities than before:

Pyschologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues compiled the data and found that over the last four decades there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being ‘above average’ in the areas of academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence.

But in appraising the traits that are considered less individualistic – co-operativeness, understanding others, and spirituality – the numbers either stayed at slightly decreased over the same period.

Researchers also found a disconnect between the student’s opinions of themselves and actual ability.

While students are much more likely to call themselves gifted in writing abilities, objective test scores actually show that their writing abilities are far less than those of their 1960s counterparts.

Also on the decline is the amount of time spent studying, with little more than a third of students saying they study for six or more hours a week compared to almost half of all students claiming the same in the late 1980s.

It is also interesting to look at these individual questions over time:

A few thoughts about this chart and the findings:

1. The drive to achieve has always been high in this survey compared to peers but social self-confidence and writing ability look to be around 50% today, which would reflect accurate comparisons to the average (or the median: half above, half below).

2. Across these five categories, it looks like there is a consistent uptick of about 15-20%. It is not as if all students are more confident but this is a sizable group of roughly 1 in 6 or 1 in 5.

3. Twenge suggests there is not the same uptick in confidence in less individualistic traits.  While this might be due to lesser emphasis on social traits, might it also suggest college freshmen think less highly of or trust their peers less over time?

4. It is less clear from these articles about how colleges should respond to this, particularly in an era where big money is spent on college degrees. Are results better by the time students graduate and beyond? Do colleges encourage students to think less individualistically?

One expanding housing market: upscale, off-campus college housing

Several builders are preparing for an area of the housing market that is set to expand: upscale, off-campus housing for college students.

These days the companies have begun to build upscale houses with bedrooms clustered around gourmet kitchens and access to amenity-filled clubhouses. Known as cottage-style housing, the relatively new product is becoming popular with operators and students.

Nationwide, there are 35 cottage communities with nearly 19,000 beds. Another 18 are under way or in the works, with roughly 12,000 beds, said Wes Rogers, chief executive of Landmark Properties Inc., which has built roughly one-third of the cottages in the U.S. While cottage-style housing represents a small percentage of the nearly 500,000 beds controlled by the sector’s top companies, industry watchers expect the bed count to increase as the product catches on…

Developers are building these properties to house an expanding student population: More than three million high-school students are expected to graduate annually until the 2018-19 academic year, well above the roughly 2.5 million graduating in 1993-1994, according to the Department of Education.

Moreover, universities don’t have enough beds and much of the current supply, tall towers with communal bathrooms, has lost favor among the McMansion generation. Schools, many struggling with budget cuts, can’t afford to build new dorms.

It’s not college, it’s luxury living! Or at least a small approximation of it.

A few thoughts about this:

1. Assuming this off-campus housing expansion continues, does this mean colleges will have to engage in an arms race for housing to keep dorms occupied? In other words, these nicer off-campus opportunities might impede campus cash flows if more students are drawn out of dorms.

2. The article doesn’t talk about this but could this lead to more of a have vs. have-not attitude on campus? Not everyone can access this kind of living quarters.

3. I wonder if better housing has any positive effect on student learning and development. Do students act differently if the (off-campus) housing is nicer?

How to define a good college town

Livability recently released a list of the Top 10 college towns and here is some discussion of how they defined such communities:

And for starters, we need a basic definition of a college town. “True college towns are places where the identity of the city is both shaped by and complementary to the presence of its university, creating an environment enjoyable to all residents, whether they are enrolled in classes or not,” Livability’s editors write. “They’re true melting pots, where young minds meet old traditions, and political, social, and cultural ideas of all kinds are welcomed.”

That’s pretty broad. But the editors go on: In a college town, “the college is not only a major employer, but also the reason for more plentiful shops, restaurants, and entertainment businesses.” And it has to look like a college town, too: “It doesn’t seem right to call a place a college town if you can’t tell classes are in session with a quick glance at the mix of people on a busy sidewalk.”…

For example, what would Baltimore be without the Johns Hopkins University? The economic equivalent of a smoldering hole in the ground, that’s what. Or consider Rochester or Syracuse, N.Y., from the same perspective. And what about Boston and Philadelphia—are they “college towns”?

As you’ll see from the list below, most of Livability’s “best” college towns are relatively small, remote places, based on colleges that are highly ranked by the Princeton Review. Livability, true to its name, also factored in cost of living and walkability. (College towns, by their nature, should be among the most pedestrian-friendly communities America has left.)

This sounds like a very traditional use of the term “college town”: places that are heavily dependent on the university or college and that are quaint yet cosmopolitan enough. I like the contrast with the big cities which often have a variety of colleges and amenities that cater to college students, faculty, and staff.

This leads to a few thoughts:

1. How many college students today pick colleges based on it being in a “college town”? The surrounding atmosphere must matter some.

2. How have college towns been affected by the recent economic downturn and its effects on college campuses? Let’s say the college bubble bursts like some are predicting: how badly hit will college towns be? Another way to put it might be to ask how resilient these communities would be if the college/university started struggling or is this another example of what could happen to communities that rely too heavily on one industry.

3. Why not include an attitudinal component with local residents asking how much they like or approve of or even know what is going on with the college? Town and gown relationships can be difficult and simply because a place is a “college town” doesn’t mean there isn’t some tension.

4. It would be interesting to trace the history of college towns and their appeal. Historically, were there advantages to having colleges in communities that were heavily dependent on them?

5. Just because a place looks like it is where learning should take place (and this seems very constructed), does it actually improve learning?