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Are University Campuses Turning into Big Brother?

Are universities becoming more Orwellian? Data gathering might indicate so. Learn more about the connection between Big Brother and education.

· Big Data Zone

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College is supposed to be some of the best years in a young person’s life. Sure, the classes can be difficult and life away from home can take some adjustment, but for the most part, university life provides great opportunities for gaining new experiences outside of immediate supervision. At least it used to be that way. Even if students are living outside the watchful eye of their parents, they may be entering the watchful eye of college administrators. Big data is increasingly being used to keep track of students while they’re on campus, monitoring nearly everything they do. Colleges, of course, contend that their use of big data as a service is done only with the students’ best interests in mind, but questions about privacy and ethics have quickly sprung up as the practice becomes more widespread.

One of the most common ways campuses now use big data is through predictive analytics. Based off of data analyzed through special algorithms, colleges can figure out when students are falling behind at a relatively early stage. Administrators can be instantly alerted when students are flagged as struggling in certain classes. Colleges can then contact those students and meet with them in order to improve their grades before they reach a point where getting a passing grade becomes too difficult. Some universities, like Georgia State, can actually use their predictive algorithms to determine if a student is likely to succeed in a particular major. They accomplish this by analyzing data from similar past students and determining if current performances will lead to graduation. Some institutions can even steer students toward certain majors that the data indicates they’d do well in.

College campuses, however, are using big data to track more than just student performance. In some cases, universities can actually track students’ physical movements. Most college students are given an ID card which they use to access campus facilities. Whenever a student swipes their card, administrators can know where they are and what they’re likely doing. Some may wonder why this is even a matter of importance for colleges, but many administrators say that students who don’t take advantage of campus facilities regularly and generally withdraw from campus life are more likely to not graduate. Ball State, for example, actually rewards low-income freshmen for attending university-approved functions. The same system at other colleges can also be used to track attendance, so universities will know when students aren’t going to class. At the same time, campuses can also track when students log in to course pages, view course materials, and participate in online course discussions. Students might not know it, but their actions are being watched constantly.

Universities defend their use of big data, saying it’s all for the students’ benefit. Tracking performance can identify problems early on, thus helping students graduate. Since adopting data analytics, Arizona State says its four-year graduation rate among low-income students has increased from 26 to 41 percent. Big data analytics can also help students graduate more quickly, saving them money on tuition if they can complete their course work in, say, five years instead of six.

But critics say using big data to monitor students goes too far, bringing up concerns over privacy. They say education and free thinking can be stifled if students know everything they do is being watched. Students may feel less free to make mistakes and participate in open discussions. There’s also a fear of what may be tracked in the future, such as comments made in class or on social media. ID cards may one day be fitted with RFID chips, which wouldn’t need to be swiped for administrators to keep track of student movements. Storing all that student data also poses the risk of a Hadoop security breach, which could be damaging if cyber criminals were able to get their hands on it.

While the debate is likely to continue, there appears to be nothing that will stop the growing momentum of big data use on campuses. The potential to improve graduation rates and help student performance will likely outweigh many of the concerns people have over privacy. How students react to this development as they become more familiar with how their data is collected and used will be interesting to watch as well. All in all, it looks like big data is set to stay on college campuses, and students better get used to having someone keep an eye on what they’re doing, even when they’re away from home.

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