The Promise and Perils of Big Data

Not Cool:

And while not exactly matchmaking, Arizona State takes an interest in students’ social lives, too. Its Facebook app mines profiles to suggest friends. One classmate shares eight things in common with Ms. Allisone, who “likes” education, photography and tattoos. Researchers are even trying to figure out social ties based on anonymized data culled from swipes of ID cards around the Tempe campus.

Very Cool:

ERIC MAZUR, a Harvard physics professor, has long worked to supplant lectures with more interactive classes. Students, he found, assimilate new material better by working on conceptual problems in class and debating their conclusions with peers. But they tend to pair up with the same friends, which can be unproductive.

Mr. Mazur and his colleagues came up with a novel solution: take students out of the matchmaking. Professors can use their software, called Learning Catalytics and now used at various campuses, to force students to defend their ideas by matching them with classroom partners who have different opinions.

One of the risks of using the data we generate to provide feedback is that we risk being stuck in a room of mirrors where our thinking is reflected back at us, basking us in the warm glow of a heroin-like narcissistic state. We stay permanently in the fog, never exposed to other ways of thinking or being challenged. Netflix, Amazon, online behavior advertising . . . the computer screen speaks to us saying that we are the fairest of them all.

Only a fool wants to hear the echo of his own voice.

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