Tapping into Big Data for Educational Research

by Lara Kovacheff Badke, PhD candidate

Lara Kovacheff Badke.Fall 2012The University of Michigan’s Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies (ICOS) recently offered its inaugural “Big Data Research Camp”, in which I had the opportunity to participate.  Before this intensive weeklong experience, I happily completed five years of doctoral studies without ever having to give much thought to the research terms ‘Python’, ‘SQL’ and ‘API’.  Fast-forward five days and I’m now an amateur “Pythonista” (Python programmer; stress the amateur qualifier!), can manage basic data with structured query language (SQL), and understand the fundamentals of application programming interfaces (APIs).  What exactly is big data – you may be asking yourself – and what does any of this mean for higher education researchers?

Every day, 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data are created.  Through credit card and ATM swipes, climate information, GPS signals, Twitter posts, Facebook statuses, YouTube videos, pictures sent on smartphones, prescriptions ordered, and other cyber connections, we leave behind digital trails of social interactions and information.  This is big data.  These numbers conceal infinite facts.  Surely these figures reflected in our modern digital exchanges could be used to provide new insight into traditional and emerging topics (how people behave, an example of a traditional topic; or mobilization of mass global political and social movements, an emerging topic).  With such copious amounts of data available in our 21st century existence, researchers are left to wonder how they might begin to both harness and make sense of it all.

There is no easy and immediate answer.  It is an unfolding area, in which best practices have yet to emerge using big data ethically and for social, as opposed to commercial, gain.  As a field, higher education is making strides in its use of big data research to inform practice in order to make better decisions; decisions affecting such areas as performance-based state funding, improving student outcomes, and allocating resources.  Finding the value in linking large data sets, using them to obtain information that would not be available from any one set alone, and collecting and interpreting relevant material, are data literacy challenges of our modern age.  We cannot even fathom the full extent to which big data might help social science research advance knowledge and disseminate truth.  It is both daunting and exciting to be a part of this growing movement, one fraught with privacy concerns, ethical dilemmas, and yet boundless possibilities.

For more information on big data resources, please visit the University of Michigan’s Advance Research Computing resources (arc.research.umich.edu).  If you are interested in participating in next year’s big data camp, watch for announcements on the ICOS website (icos.umich.edu) in late winter 2014.