Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

The liberal arts college in the era of Big Data

Sean Decatur
March 20, 2014

One of my spring break adventures was attending the semiannual meeting of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Biological Sciences Advisory Committee, on which I’ve served since 2010.  This group, scientists from a range of subfields of the biological sciences, is charged with advising the NSF’s Biology Directorate on its mission, goals, administration, and policy.

A major topic of this meeting was the impact of the data revolution on biology.  The amount of data being generated on biological systems is both overwhelming and revolutionary.  As an example, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a series of data collection sites being constructed all over the US, will be generating data on the yottabyte scale – that is 1 x 10^15 GB (for those who are struggling with that number, trust me – it is big).  Much of our discussion revolved around how we can prepare future generations of researchers, as well as current faculty members, to pose meaningful questions that will properly take advantage of this massive amount of data.

Big data” is revolutionizing our lives in many unseen ways.  We all generate massive amounts of data with every Google search, every purchase with a credit card, every check-in on social media.  As Victor Mayer-Schonberger and Keith Neil Cukier discuss in their 2013 book Big Data, the ability to analyze massive datasets quickly, and model the results in meaningful ways, is changing everything.  While the computational power to crunch data is growing rapidly, we are still developing the analytical insights and tools that allow us to use giant datasets to transform our thinking in all areas of inquiry.  That is the crux of the argument of Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier:  the challenge is no longer how to store or manipulate huge amounts of data, but rather to evolve our critical skills to ask the right questions that will result in meaningful answers.

How will the era of big data affect the world of the residential liberal arts college?  In many ways, life and work at Kenyon seem antithetical to impersonal number crunching and modeling.  Kenyon’s foundation is built upon relationships – between faculty and student, between student and peers, between students and staff, inside and outside of the classroom.  Big data may help crack the code of airline ticket pricing, or lead to reasonable recommendations in my Netflix queue, but does this approach have a role in the very traditional process of intellectual exploration and development that occurs at Kenyon?

I believe that the answer to this question is an enthusiastic YES.  Kenyon is as a complex network of knowledge resources, expertise, and opportunities, and the tools for analysis and navigation of large datasets may help us leverage the full power of this Kenyon network.  As the curriculum has grown over the years, simple browsing of the course catalog is not sufficient to create a full picture of the connections and common threads through seemingly disparate courses, and the catalog barely scratches the surface of the rich opportunities available outside of the classroom.  Are there ways to visualize intellectual connections among courses in much the way that Pandora can highlight similarities and themes among musical selections?   Such a resource could be even more powerful when all of the other resources at our disposal on campus are added into the database:  faculty scholarly interests; expertise of our alumni; co-curricular opportunities available on or off-campus; a lecture that may be scheduled for later this year on campus; or maybe a lecture that happened last year, but is archived online.   A search for “public health,” for example, may bring up any courses we offer on campus relating to public health; faculty who have scholarly interest in the field; student organizations connected to the topic of public health; a list of known internship opportunities in this field; and a link to alumni who work in this area (some of whom may also be listed as potential alumni mentors for students in search of career advice).  This is a community with many resources and opportunities, so many that we cannot fully visualize them without tools.  Technology may make the deep connections and rich opportunities within our community clearly visible and navigable. 

We could build such a system by collecting all of the information available to us, linking it in an electronic network, and including searchable tags (either generated centrally or curated at large by the community).   Alternatively, we could build a system of links that is emergent, for example identifying patterns in courses taken by students in order to recommend other courses during registration period (imagine a version of “If you liked ‘The Sopranos,’ you may want to consider ‘Lilyhammer’” – making recommendations on courses, internship programs or study-away opportunities based on your previous course work and the choices of those who have come before you).  Course selection over the years has been guided by a combination of advice from one’s adviser, professors and peers.   Emergent patterns may harness all of this the collective input and advice from the faculty into a searchable system.

Neither of these tools is a replacement for the important conversations and guidance from one’s advisers and mentors.  However, they can be useful supplements to the advising process.  As the curriculum grows larger – and the breadth of knowledge grows broader – we need as many tools as possible to assist in navigation.  As opposed to making students more narrowly directed, such tools may prompt more exploration.  As Barry Schwartz (the Swarthmore psychologist) describes in the book The Paradox of Choice, the availability of far-reaching choices and options often leads to a retrenchment from risk-taking resulting from a cognitive overload.

When we discuss the impact of technology on the residential liberal arts college model, conversations very quickly turn to online content delivery, and then inevitably to the question of whether this is a threat or substitute for the traditional educational model at Kenyon.  But the potential for technology to revolutionize the liberal arts experience goes well beyond the mere delivery of content online.  Technology presents Kenyon with an important opportunity to provide tools capable of visualizing the Kenyon knowledge network in order to deepen the learning and intellectual experience of our whole community.