‘Big data’ could create ‘dystopian future’ for students

Using “big data” to help match people to courses could cut freedom of choice and ultimately put students off higher education, an expert has warned.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute, said there was danger of creating a dystopian future comparable to science fiction films like Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.

In that film data is used by the state to sentence people for crimes they have yet to commit. The danger was that data could be used to tell students what subject they should specialise in before they started their degree, Professor Mayer-Schönberger said.

“There has been much debate over last 30 years about streaming and tracking students from elementary school, and putting them on a particular track based on their successes and failures in particular standardised tests,” he told Times Higher Education, adding that this approach was particularly prevalent in the US.

“These tests only capture a pupil’s performance at a point in time. It doesn’t capture change over time – it s just a snapshot. We are already using this small data to make predications about educational attainment and ability and make decisions based on that.”

However, as more complex and detailed “big data” sets are collected, Professor Mayer-Schönberger is concerned that the ability of students to determine courses that they take will be lessened.

“Until the beginning of the big data age, a student could write in his or her application…an argument outlining why the data might not be complete enough, and might not give a comprehensive prediction,” he said.

“I fear that as we move into the big data age…this argument will not hold much currency any more. Then I worry that the predictions will take over, and schools, universities and college swill not take any risks any more.”

“People get infatuated with data, and give it a lot of clout even though there are limitations with it,” concluded Professor Mayer-Schönberger, who sits on the admissions committee at Harvard University.

Professor Mayer-Schönberger was speaking ahead of giving a keynote speech at the Online Educa Berlin conference, which took place in the German city earlier this month.


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