I Read “Data and Goliath” Because of Barbara Fister

Why you might also want to put this book on your must read list.

July 6, 2015
Published in March, 2015
I’m interested how we choose the books we read. Here is my request to you. Please keep track of, and share with our IHE community, how you select your books.  

For one of the recent books that I read I can definitely share my book selection process. I chose to buy and read (two very different actions) Data and Goliath because of Barbara Fister. Barbara reviewed the book -  A Scare-Your-Socks-Off Thriller: Data and Goliath.  I bought the book.

If you have not secured your copy of Data and Goliath, or you have an unread copy, I encourage you to make time this summer for the book. 

Data and Goliath did 2 things for me. First, the book freaked me out a bit. My big takeaway from this book is that I’ve been way too casual in protecting my own data privacy. This is partly an issue of protecting against identity theft and other data crimes. Protecting our data privacy is also the best method that we have to guard against our consumer behavior being unknowingly manipulated.  
Data and Goliath is strongest when it describes the ability of companies to predict and influence our purchasing behavior based on the digital trails that we leave behind. The fact that all of our online actions are tracked, as increasingly are our real world actions through our mobile phones, is one that I knew about in a general sort of way. 
Schneier provides the specifics for how companies use our personal digital information to influence our behaviors. He also gives some recommendations on how to avoid being tracked, analyzed, and relentlessly marketed to based on our data.  
I’m not yet ready to adopt all of his recommendations, as I like using Google and Gmail and I think my iPhone is pretty cool, but there are some easy changes that we can all make.  Never use a public browser. Consider using ad blocking software on your browser. Don’t fill out all those online surveys. Be very cautious about giving any personal information on any web form.  
Second, Data and Goliath made me think in a different way about how we will use data and analytics in higher education. A big part of the book covers Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s data tracking abilities. This story will be familiar to anyone who has followed the NSA revelations. What I found most interesting is Schneier’s analysis of how the NSA’s efforts to compromise data security ended up weakening their ability to conduct intelligence. By sucking everything up, the NSA seemed to have lost sight what methods may actually lead to actionable intelligence.
There are some lessons here as we think about big data and analytics in higher education. The temptation will be to capture everything when it comes to learner behavior. After all, the data is being produced in all those learning platform clickstreams. Why not capture and analyze it? One lesson from the NSA actions is that big data is not a substitute for sharp thinking. 
In education, we should take care to define our hypothesis and ground our research in both solid theoretical frameworks and the literature on student learning. This is only partially an issue of privacy, as most educational big data is anonymized. (Although we need pay close attention to privacy. Schneier recommends appointing a Chief Privacy Officer - a suggestion that makes sense).  
Being thoughtful and deliberate in using big data is also a matter of effectiveness. We should not be seduced by the siren call of big educational data. Rather, we should bring the same healthy skepticism to our learning data as we bring to our traditional research practices.
None of these thoughts would have occurred unless I had purchased (or borrowed) and then read Data and Goliath. The fact that I purchased and read Data and Goliath on the recommendation of Barbara Fister should be interesting to publishers everywhere.  Publishers, get your books to Barbara Fister.  
How do you select your books?
How do you decide which books to read?
What are you reading?


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