Isn’t technology wonderful? At Purdue University, the same IT infrastructure that enables us to manage student assignments and grades, operate residential and dining facilities, and support a leading community of scientific researchers produces as a byproduct a massive amount of fascinating information. We know where each student is anytime — which is virtually all the time — their mobile devices are connected to our WiFi network. When they enter their dorm, or dining court, or recreational facility, they swipe in, and a machine captures the time and place. Whether they’re in class or in their rooms, a machine knows when they’re online and where they’re going while there. Forget that old ominous line, “We know where you live.” These days, it’s, “We know where you are.”
University people are curious by nature, and much of today’s “Big Data” era was born at our school. So it’s only natural that we would want to delve into this treasure trove of information in search of illuminating patterns — especially those that might prove helpful to those same students, whose academic success is the heart of our mission.
Does the data say that too many days away from campus, or too many absences from class, or too much in-class browsing of websites unrelated to the course, or too few visits to the gym, correlates with lower grades? Does eating meals with the same people day after day appear to help scholastic performance? If so, shouldn’t we bring this to the students’ attention, for their own good?