Big Data on Campus

Tim Goral's picture
Thursday, July 19, 2012

Campuses are places of intuition and serendipity: a professor senses confusion on a student’s face and repeats his point; a student majors in psychology after a roommate takes a course; two freshmen meet on the quad and eventually become husband and wife. Now imagine hard data substituting for happenstance.

As Katye Allisone, a freshman at Arizona State University, hunkers down in a computer lab for an 8:35 a.m. math class, the Web-based course watches her back. Answers, scores, pace, click paths — it hoovers up information, like Google. But rather than personalizing search results, data shape Ms. Allisone’s class according to her understanding of the material.

With 72,000 students, A.S.U. is both the country’s largest public university and a hotbed of data-driven experiments. One core effort is a degree-monitoring system that keeps tabs on how students are doing in their majors. Stray off-course and a student may have to switch fields.

And while not exactly matchmaking, Arizona State takes an interest in students’ social lives, too. Its Facebook app mines profiles to suggest friends. One classmate shares eight things in common with Ms. Allisone, who “likes” education, photography and tattoos. Researchers are even trying to figure out social ties based on anonymized data culled from swipes of ID cards around the Tempe campus.

This is college life, quantified.

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