Data-mining Sherpa guides students

Personalized guidance for academic surfers is the goal of Sherpa, software developed by the South Orange County Community College District.  Sherpa mines student data to guide them to relevant courses, information, and services, reports Chronicle of Higher Education.

A new student might get a link to the online orientation. A student with a high grade-point average might get a link to the honors program. A student with low grades might be pointed to tutoring services.

With more information about students, the suggestions could get much more specific. Jim Gaston, South Orange’s associate director for IT, academic systems, and special projects, gave the example of a tip he hopes to be able to send to a student who hasn’t yet registered for class:

“Your classes are filling fast. We looked at your academic plan and saw that you plan on transferring to UC Berkeley as a biology major. We searched the class schedule. We found a set of courses you said you were interested in. Based on the pattern of classes you’ve taken in the past, here are the four classes we think you’re going to be most interested in. We’ve already screened them for pre-recs. They don’t have a time conflict with when you said you were going to work. And one of them is your favorite instructor.”

Creepy? Not to a generation that’s used to intelligent recommendations from Amazon, Pandora, Facebook, iTunes, and Netflix.

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON October 18, 2010

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Diana Senechal

The creepiest part is the attempt to make it seem personal and human. If the software just showed the courses that fit in a students’ schedule or met the requirements, that would be one thing. But claiming to recommend courses “we think you’re going to be most interested in” is not only deceptive but manipulative and intrusive. Students aren’t always consistent in their interests and choices, nor should they be. Nor are the “likeliest” choices always the best.


Senechal makes a good point. We’d need to know the basis for these recommendations as well, and who really gets to make them.

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