“Numbers are funny. They can analyze you all they want,
but they can’t measure how you play the game.
They can’t measure heart, want, or need.
You can’t measure a dream.”
The start of every new year begins with lists. Lists that contain resolutions, goals, or trends to watch. One of the trends to watch for higher education is predictive analytics. Essentially, the use of data to meet students’ needs and increase the success rate of student outcomes. We are bombarded with all sorts of apps that collect data we either voluntarily allow or naively give up. There are fitness apps, food apps, productivity apps, and entertainment apps. All of our technological devices and various apps collect data for the purposes of making our lives better. In the middle of all this data collection, have we forgotten an important predictor…heart?
No doubt, institutions will collectively turn to measuring and monitoring student data in the hopes of increasing student completion and proactively offering support services. These are the reported benefits of predictive analytics and the enticement of big data. However, what about students’ heart? Their dreams and goals? What kind of data is being tracked or monitored that goes beyond the numbers and seeks to understand students’ individual needs?
Generally, the argument in support of predictive analytics focuses on being able to anticipate students’ future behavior in order to provide “personalized” education and support. However, sometimes the numbers get it wrong. Students are often pushed into a field of study or major because they are told it’s a good pathway that will open doors to other opportunities, but deep down inside, students find themselves pursuing a passion that is not their own. Sir Ken Robinson offered this story during his May 2010 Bring on the Learning Revolution TED Talk.
I was up in San Francisco a while ago doing a book signing. There was this guy buying a book, he was in his 30s. I said, “What do you do?” And he said, “I’m a fireman.” I asked, “How long have you been a fireman?” “Always. I’ve always been a fireman.” “Well, when did you decide?” He said, “As a kid. Actually, it was a problem for me at school, because at school, everybody wanted to be a fireman.”
He said, “But I wanted to be a fireman.” And he said, “When I got to the senior year of school, my teachers didn’t take it seriously. This one teacher didn’t take it seriously. He said I was throwing my life away if that’s all I chose to do with it; that I should go to college, I should become a professional person, that I had great potential and I was wasting my talent to do that.” He said, “It was humiliating. It was in front of the whole class and I felt dreadful. But it’s what I wanted, and as soon as I left school, I applied to the fire service and I was accepted. You know, I was thinking about that guy [teacher] recently, just a few minutes ago when you were speaking, because six months ago, I saved his life.” He said, “He was in a car wreck, and I pulled him out, gave him CPR, and I saved his wife’s life as well.” He said, “I think he thinks better of me now.”
Back then, if they used predictive analytics, the teacher probably saw the results of this student’s test scores, his grades, and made assumptions about his talents. While the data was all correct, it failed to measure heart, want, or need. This student knew his passion was to be a fireman. If he had listened to his critics, he probably would have been accepted to college, pursued a “professional” degree, and made a decent living, but he would never have pursued his dream. Predictive analytics and big data are excellent tools, but with powerful tools comes the responsibility to not lose sight of the people behind the data. Higher education should not be based on gathering data, pushing career pathways, and minimizing dreams. Higher education is about supporting students to identify their talents, pursue their goals, and achieve their dreams.
Let’s pay attention to trends, use predictive analytics, embrace big data, but never forget the focus is on students first. It’s not about the tools, but about the people we serve.
How does your institution support students in achieving their dreams?