Winds of Change: Big Data and Education

Big data courses from Udacity

A revolution is underway in the United States of America; a movement that threatens to change the very foundation of the education system in the land of the free and home of the brave. At the forefront of this upheaval is the CEO of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun. Udacity is an online education service that allows users to avail of the expertise of college teachers and industry leaders through project-based courses.

Sebastian Thrun-the Man with a Mission

Thrun has quite the résumé when it comes to pioneering causes if one were to look at his accomplishments thus far. A Ph.D holder in computer science and statistics, the masters program he started at Carnegie Mellion evolved into the United States’ first doctoral program in machine learning.

Whilst at Stanford as the director of their Artificial Intelligence Lab, he realized the role the internet could play in eradicating a number of concerns with the higher education structure in existence.  A man known for his research in self-driving cars, Google Glass and Google Street View, Thrun bore witness to something quite astounding when he and a colleague at Stanford offered a class online. Expecting a response from 500 to 1000 students, he was taken aback when 160,000 students signed up for the class titled ‘An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’.

According to Thrun, education is on the verge of morphing into something that blends seamlessly into everyday life. Thrun is a great believer in data science’s ability to transform higher education to a more modernized, relevant and inexpensive model compared to the one currently in place.

Higher Education in the USA: A Financial Quagmire

The United States’ education system is out of reach for a large portion of the populace due to its extraordinarily expensive nature. Over $ 1 trillion is the figure the ever-rising student loan debt stands at. On an average, a student is $27,000 in debt. This figure surpasses credit card loans and car loans as it pertains to the biggest sources of personal debt. The figures look bleak and no signs of improvement are on the horizon sadly. In the coming decade, tuitions fees in the country are expected to double.

All these statistics indicate that a high-priced college degree doesn’t necessarily equate to lucrative employment. Due to this, it becomes harder and harder to get out of debt. One of the main reasons for this is that the current education system does not prepare graduates for their roles in a workforce.

Data Science: The Slayer of the Classroom model?

What exactly is data science? According to Wikipedia, data science incorporates varying elements and builds on techniques and theories from many fields, including mathematics, statistics, data engineering, pattern recognition and learning, advanced computing, visualization, uncertainty modelling, data warehousing, and high performance computing with the goal of extracting meaning from data and creating data products.

Thrun opines that the classroom-lecture model that is currently being followed in the United States is outdated and obsolete thanks to the possibility of using big data to enhance the efficiency of teaching. In his eyes, learning procedures can be modified in such a way that the chances of student success are maximised. Doing this would require the collection and analysis of data and also treatment of the process of learning as a data science.

‘Big Data’ or predictive analytics can help an institution segment their students into defined groups on the basis of statistical models. It also aids professors in gaining new insights into the previous behaviour of a student so that any remedial measures that need to be prescribed can be tailor-made to suit the needs of the student to a tee.

A number of Thrun’s Stanford classroom students favored online classes because it enabled them to study at their own pace. The option to learn at any time of the day and to work out a problem on their own without having to bother other students were also factors that swung the vote in favour of online classes.

The implementation of MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses ahead of traditional classroom based education helped cut down tuition fees from $45,000 to around $6,000, according to Thrun. He hopes that if more universities are willing to offer such courses, the $3 trillion student debt would peter out over time.

Udacity and others in the field have given fresh optimism to the jaded student community in the United States. Time will tell if Thrun’s confidence in MOOCs and Data Science revolutionizing the field of education is misplaced or not.

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