Using The Web To Better Understand Student Needs

The University of Phoenix has created their “learning genome project” which will allow the institution to track and learn from student behavior online (link here).

Where Facebook has shown unique value is as a data-gathering tool. Never has a website been able to learn so much about its users. And that is where higher education should be taking notes, said Angie McQuaig, director of data innovation at the University of Phoenix, at the 2010 Educause conference on Friday.

If Facebook can use analytics to revolutionize advertising in the Web era, McQuaig suggested, colleges can use the same principles to revolutionize online learning.

The trick, she said, is individualization. Facebook lets users customize their experiences with the site by creating profiles and curating the flow of information coming through their “news feeds.” In the same motion, the users volunteer loads of information about themselves.

I don’t think the idea of “individualization” will surprise effective teachers and trainers as it is essential to the learning process.  The real story is using the web to gather the data necessary to create these individualized profiles and then mining that mountain of data to understand specific trends.  This is no easy task and can be resource intensive to gain insight beyond giving personalized class recommendations and specific news feeds.  If Phoenix is able to accurately predict a student’s learning behavior they have the technology infrastructure in place to deliver a truly customized curriculum.

I have lesser concerns regarding the ethical implications as I hold stronger reservations for a service like Facebook selling data and allowing partners to track user behavior than I hold if the company used the data for its own purposes.  I don’t think users can act surprised that a company tracks their behavior in an attempt to provide better service in the future.



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