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David, Goliath, Gladwell, Analytics
October 15, 2013 - 11:00pm

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

Published in October, 2013.

Hello from EDUCAUSE!

Here is my EDUCAUSE fantasy. Everyone at the conference is given the Kindle version of chapter 3 Gladwell's new book David and Goliath. This is the chapter that Matt Reed talks about in his discussion of the book.

And when I say everyone I mean everyone. Vendors, speakers, attendees, journalists, hanger-ons, and groupies - the whole EDUCAUSE tribe. Everything stops for 1 hour while we read the chapter on our various devices, break into small groups, and discuss. Good idea?

In chapter 3, the Caroline Sacks chapter, Gladwell is questioning the conventional wisdom that a students best bet is to go to the best school that she can be admitted.  

Sacks, a pseudonym for an 18 year old science enthusiast, decides to go to Brown rather than the University of Maryland. She ends up overwhelmed by the science class competition and the weeding funnel that exists for STEM majors.  She finds herself majoring in something in the humanities or social sciences.  

Gladwell's take home message is Caroline Sacks would have been better off going to a school where she would have been a big fish in a little pond, rather than being forced to compete with the gunners at your typical highly selective institution. 

Chapter 3 of David and Goliath hits close to home for any number of reasons.  

I have an 11th grade daughter who thinks that she wants to follow her Mom into medicine. She is starting the process of looking at colleges now. Her Mom and I met at Brown. We've been talking up Brown and other Brown like schools. You get where I'm going with this.

But really where chapter 3 of David and Goliath hits home is that I took a very different lesson away from his story then what Gladwell is selling.

What I took away is that higher ed failed Caroline.  (And all the other Caroline's that start out wanting to do STEM and end up not being able to finish the major that they want).

It seems clear to me that anyone that gets into one of our selective institutions has the ability to do well in their chosen profession.  Or at least they should have the shot at reaching their goals.

What Gladwell is describing in his higher ed chapter is a mismatch between student preferences and student outcomes.  

A young woman comes into college determined to finish with a STEM major and for whatever reason finishes with something else. If that young woman made the switch from STEM to the humanities or social sciences for her own reasons than great. Good for her. (I was a history major!). But if she switched of STEM for extrinsic reasons, for causes beyond her own choosing, than I feel like we have let her down.

Which brings me back to our EDUCAUSE conference.

What I'll be looking to discover at EDUCAUSE is where can I find the best partners to employ the power of analytics, and the promise of data, to help our students reach their own preferences.

If the great school that Caroline Sacks went to had received early warnings that she was in danger of not reaching her educational goals then some intervention could have occurred.  

Perhaps some focused advising or tutoring.  Perhaps the pairing with a mentor.  Resources could have been made available to help Caroline out.

Analytics could have also allowed Caroline's school to develop a holistic and data driven picture of where students' like Caroline get into trouble.  

The promise of big data in higher education is the aggregation of lots of student experiences in the service of making targeted investments and evidence based changes in our courses, advising, and student support services.  

Analytics could have predicted that Caroline is at risk of not being able to meet her educational preferences, and analytics could have helped her professors and her school put in place programs and supports before an individual student ever gets in trouble.

I think that everyone involved in higher ed, and certainly everyone at EDUCAUSE, needs to read chapter 3 of Gladwell's David and Goliath. We need to take Gladwell's critique seriously.  We need to counter Gladwell's argument that learners should temper their dreams and under-match their schools.   

Everyone should be able to go to the best place that they can attend.  And everyone deserves to have the supports and recourses they need to achieve their own educational and learning goals.   

EDUCAUSE is the perfect place to begin our efforts to harness the potential and power of analytics in higher education.

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