Viewpoint: Students need data, too

Thursday, October 22, 2015 - 7:26pm

How do you decide what courses to take, what majors to pursue and what requirements to tackle? If you are a typical, bright Wolverine, you ask your friends, an advisor or maybe even a professor. You check out the course guide and hope, hope, hope that the instructor has provided more than a three-sentence description, or maybe even linked a syllabus. You check out, knowing its data is not perfect, but realizing it’s better than nothing.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know more?

When you’re considering a class, it would be good to know who takes it. What courses do they take before, at the same time and after? What do they go on to major in? How do they do in the class — what’s the grade distribution? How have your fellow Michigan students rated this course, its workload and how much they learned? How have they rated the instructor?

The University has all this information, but doesn’t currently share it with the students. It’s hoping to, and we think it’s a great idea.

The creepy aspects of the Information Age receive a lot of attention, and for good reason. Many of us worry about the things governments and corporations know about us through the data they collect, sometimes behind our backs. But the digital footprints we leave have a positive potential, too. When information is collected and shared openly, it can be used for justice and equity, not just efficiency and profit. Here at the University, within our campus community, students should be able to use data to learn from the experiences of their peers.

In 2012, we served on the Senate Assembly’s Academic Affairs Advisory Committee, a part of the University’s faculty governance. This group asked then-Provost Philip Hanlon to support emerging efforts to use data in support of teaching and learning at the University. He immediately did so, and the Learning Analytics Task Force was created. His successor, Provost Martha Pollack, has continued this support, and Michigan is now one of the nation’s leaders in using data to improve higher education.

For three years, LATF has worked to promote the use of data to improve teaching and learning at Michigan — to better understand our diverse student body and the challenges they face, to personalize learning, even in courses with thousands of students, and to create actionable information for faculty, staff and especially students.

These efforts led to the creation of the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, which develops digital learning tools from innovation to infrastructure. One of DIG’s tools is version 2.0 of the so-called Academic Reporting Toolkit, which provides rich quantitative data about courses, who takes them, how they do and what else they do. The University is hoping to make part of this tool available to students, too. LATF also conducted analyses of other existing information tools on campus, including the student course evaluations. All this work has helped to create a community of learning analytics researchers, with internationally recognized leadership in the field.

Students are gradually becoming involved in our efforts. Some have participated in design jams to brainstorm new tools (students know what they want better than we do). Some have helped us explore the immense amounts of data the University had the foresight to start collecting in a systematic way 20 years ago. But it’s time to take a bigger step — to enable all students to take advantage of more of the information we have. 

The first step is for the University to share some of it with students. This is happening slowly, but stay tuned — we’re excited about what the learning analytics community has developed for students to make even better decisions about their time at the University.

An even more important step, however, is to have you, the students, as our partners. We believe appropriate access to relevant information is essential to the principles of beneficence, justice and transparency that have always guided our University community. To this end, we invite students, student groups and student government to join us in these important conversations as partners in collecting, exploring, improving and acting on data.

Tim McKay is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and Astronomy in LSA, Director of the LSA Honors Program and the chair of the Learning Analytics Task Force.

Mika LaVaque-Manty is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, an Associate Professor of Political Science and Philosophy, and a member of the Learning Analytics Task Force.