Tuesday, July 29, 2014

OK Trends

If you're not familiar with the OKCupid blog, check out it out here. Christian Rudder slices and dices data from the dating site to try to reveal human nature. I find it great fun to follow along with his train of thought, which he presents engagingly and well-illustrated with graphics. The articles could serve as examples to students of what 'critical thinking' might be.

The report linked above is particularly interesting because it addresses ethical issues. If you look at the comments, you'll see a range of reactions from "that's cool" to "how dare you!", include a couple by putative psychology researchers who mention IRB processes. This comes on the heals of Facebook's research on manipulating attitudes, and the resulting media fiasco.

This is a looming problem for us in higher education, too. As an example, imagine a software application that tracks students on campus by using the wi-fi network's access points and connections to cellphones. This could be used to identify student behaviors that are predictive of academic performance and retention (e.g. class attendance, social activity). Whereas a manual roll-taking in class is an accepted method of monitoring student behavior, cellphone tracking crosses a line into creepy. The only way to proceed with such a project would be transparently, in my opinion, which could be done with an opt-in program. In such a program, students would be given a description and opportunity to sign up. In return, they receive information back, probably both the detailed information that is being gathered as well as summary reports on the project. I have been looking for examples of colleges taking this approach. If you know of one, please let me know!

See also: "okcupid is the new facebook? more on the politics of algorithmic manipulation" at scatterplot.com.

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