Big data. We’ve all heard this phrase bantered about in the news and social media. Attitudes vary about what big data is and how it’s used. Some see it as an invasion of privacy (see Mark Zuckerberg before Congress), while others see its potential in making business more efficient and effective. Regardless of one’s attitude, though, we are in a new reality where big data is here to stay. As technology becomes more efficient and powerful, we are going to see an increasing role for data in how businesses are run, governments enforce its policies and laws, and how companies market their wares to consumers.
The field of education is not immune to the growing role of big data. I recently had the opportunity to hear Bernard Bull, PhD (Assistant VP of Academics, Chief Innovation Officer at Concordia University, Wisconsin) present at an online education conference. Though he dislikes the term, Bull identifies his work as that of a futurist—one who analyzes data to detect trends and patterns within higher education.
In his presentation, Bull noted how education institutions are already using big data in the areas of: college search and connection; student retention and success; student learning, progress, and mastery; organizational health; and learner connections with people and organizations. For instance, institutions are using data derived from their students’ activities in their Learning Management Systems (LMS—sites like Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle where courses are housed and students access the course work, grades, email, etc.) to detect patterns that may indicate risk factors such as attendance, overall GPA, performance within a class, and a host of other information that help administrators know how to better serve their students.
Big data, however, is also influencing another areas of technology that may (according to Bull) soon impact education such as Artificial Intelligence (AI). The concept of AI has long fascinated humankind, and recently it has become a reality in our everyday lives. For instance, Siri and Alexa provide help and even guidance for mundane tasks like scheduling, directions, and even informing. What is not so evident in daily life is the significant strides made in AI. For instance, Bull notes that “we are on the verge of an age when artificial intelligence is inching, or sometimes leaping, toward noticing countless nuances.” For instance, AI has progressed such that it has the ability to identify the various nuances of one’s facial expressions—the combination of muscles and their movements. Soon AI “promises to detect lies, fear and anxiety, interest, confusion, and more.”
It is not too far in the future when AI will make inroads in education. Take an online math course, for instance, facilitated by AI. While a student performs their work in their college’s LMS, the non-human facilitator indicates patterns and trends (positive and negative) that helps direct the student’s learning to emphasize areas of concern. Also at the AI’s disposal is the student’s webcam that is on as the student takes the course, recording facial expressions and tones of voice that clue the AI to potential problem areas in the curriculum for the student. While such a scenario is not reality right now, it is not so far-fetched in light of the progress made in technology and AI.
As higher education costs continue to soar, student debt balloons, and overall dissatisfaction grows regarding the value of one’s college degree for the workplace, higher education institutions are looking for ways to decrease their costs while increasing the value of their services. It is likely that institutions will turn more toward technology increase the value of their work.
How does this discussion apply to philosophy? The concern is not so much with the content of philosophy than it is with how philosophy is delivered. There is a growing trend among colleges and universities of cutting humanities degrees and/or departments in efforts to cut costs and to focus attention on degrees that meet workforce demands. Even if an institution does not completely cut out the humanities, the availability of courses in philosophy (and other humanities areas) are significantly decreased to make room for more “relevant” areas of study. What this means for the future, then, is that one interested in philosophy may find fewer options in where to study. Further, in order to find a viable job, one may have to minor in philosophy while majoring in an area that is marketable.
If big data changes (and it will) the way people choose their college, what institutions provide in terms of degrees, and what counts as relevant education for the workforce, then we need to reconsider how we deliver philosophy education. Here are some questions that come to mind:
- Does the study of philosophy need to be wed to another discipline of study (as opposed to being a standalone degree)? Rather than doing general philosophy courses, develop philosophy courses within specific degree areas that relate the relevance of philosophy to that area.
- Can philosophy be incorporated into a company’s training and culture? While this may seem far-fetched, Forbes recently published an article titled “Why Your Board Needs a Chief Philosophy Officer”. Sally Percy interviews French professor Christian Voegtlin regarding a recent trend of companies hiring in-house philosophers who help leaders to see their work in light of life’s big questions, as well as serve as “consultant, life coach, and strategist.” As companies become more conscious of how their decisions have wide-ranging implications, philosophers can play a role in helping them connect the company’s work to the bigger picture.
- Is philosophy education better served by occurring outside of formal higher education? Personally, I don’t like this question. I received my philosophy education in graduate school, and I am an adjunct professor of philosophy in a local college. However, if we philosophers are honest with ourselves, people’s attitudes toward philosophy and their understanding of what philosophy is is largely based on what philosophers produce. And much of what we have produced appears disconnected and aloof from daily life. If we were to place the education of philosophy in the context of daily life, perhaps philosophy’s value and relevance will be more apparent to non-philosophers (i.e. those who do not have formal education in philosophy).
These questions are not exhaustive. Nor does my asking them mean that I have the answers. What I hope my questions do is to get us talking about the changing landscape of higher education and the workforce, and how it relates to philosophy education. We cannot simply sit by and hope against hope that how we deliver philosophy education will remain as it is.
Bull’s closing assertion in his article on AI is significantly relevant here: “The question is whether we are going to do the good and important work of helping to shape that transformation [i.e. change as a result of AI] in positive ways, or whether we will simply let AI take the lead through lazy thinking, naivety, technological fatalism, or something else.” Likewise, we can watch continue to watch philosophy departments and courses be cut, or we can address how we can meet the challenges of a changing world. If we remain inactive, philosophy will devolve into irrelevance in the eyes of educators, business leaders, and the general public. However, if are proactive, we can demonstrate philosophy’s lasting relevance for all areas of life.
Post Script: I believe that philosophy has much to offer to big data—particularly how one interprets and uses data. As Bull asserted in his presentation, data is not value neutral. It “muzzles” some aspects of reality while emphasizing other aspects. Further, as I’ve instructed my students, data is not self-evidence; it requires context and interpretation. We need people who see the bigger picture and don’t make data do or say more than it does. Philosophy is a vital tool in promoting a responsible utilization of big data.
 These are categories Bull identifies in his online article as well, “The Promise, Peril, and Possibility of Data, Analytics, and AI in Higher Education: A Framework (1 of 7),” June 13, 2018. Accessed June 14, 2018. Available http://etale.org/main/2018/06/13/the-promise-peril-and-possibility-of-data-analytics-and-ai-in-higher-education-a-framework-1-of-7/.
Bull, “The Promise, Peril, and Possibility of Data”. Data is also being used to indicate patterns and trends of an instructor’s activity in an online classroom to ensure they are actively involved in their students’ learning.
Bernard Bull, “How AI Will Transform Education & Why Now is the Time to Start Preparing For It.” May 31, 2018. Accessed June 14, 2018. Available http://etale.org/main/2018/05/31/how-ai-will-transform-education-why-now-is-the-time-to-start-preparing-for-it/.
This example is adapted from an example provided by Bernard Bull during his conference presentation. See also “How AI Will Transform Education & Why Now is the Time to Start Preparing For It.”
Sally Percy, “Why Your Board Needs a Chief Philosophy Officer,” Forbes, March 9, 2018. Accessed June 14, 2018. Available https://www.forbes.com/sites/sallypercy/2018/03/09/why-your-board-needs-a-chief-philosophy-officer/.
 Bull, “How AI Will Transform Education.”