By Steve Kolowich
John R. Barker paces the front of the lecture hall, gesturing at slides with a laser pointer and explaining to a room full of undergraduates how scientists use data to make predictions about global climate change.
At the moment Mr. Barker, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Michigan, is facing a climate crisis of his own: The atmosphere in this lecture hall is dead.
The students are supposed to be following along with the slides on their computers while taking notes using a program called LectureTools. It was designed to collect data on how students are reacting to lectures—in theory, giving professors a window into what is going on in the heads of their students.
Today the data collection seems to be going poorly. Few students appear to have LectureTools open on their monitors, and even fewer are using the program to take notes. One student is watching a soccer match. Another is surfing message boards on Reddit. Several are wearing ear buds.
The majority watch Mr. Barker with inscrutable expressions. Occasionally he asks, “Are there any questions about this?” Silence. Are the students learning anything? He does not know.
This lack of awareness has become unacceptable in some corners of higher education. Colleges face mounting pressure to show that students walk away with more than millstones of debt. Traditional universities, especially prestigious ones like Michigan, face less scrutiny than newer institutions that run big online programs and operate like upstart businesses.
But traditional universities also may be less well set up to adapt to a culture of accountability. At research universities in particular, professors face less pressure to use technology to measure and modify the classroom experiences they are delivering to students.
LectureTools is supposed to help Michigan’s professors become more data-driven in their teaching. The software is the creation of Perry J. Samson, one of Mr. Barker’s colleagues in the department of atmospheric, oceanographic, and space sciences. Mr. Samson’s idea was to invent a system that could spur his colleagues to squeeze data out of the thin air of the lecture hall—data they might use to become better teachers.
On this drizzly April morning, from where Mr. Samson sits in the back of the lecture hall, it doesn’t seem as if his system is changing anything.
If data-driven teaching is the future of higher education, traditional universities are at a disadvantage.
In virtual classrooms, the subtlest gestures are preserved in digital amber. Colleges that are largely online, like the University of Phoenix and Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education, sit atop vast deposits of data describing students’ interactions with instructors, peers, readings, and quizzes.
Those data can be mined for insights about teaching techniques that are not working and concepts that students are failing to grasp. They also can be used to design software that adapts on the fly to the needs of individual students, an approach that many advocates see as online education’s trump card against traditional instruction.
At Michigan, however, many undergraduate courses operate as they have on campuses for centuries. Classroom discussions, if they happen at all, are ephemeral. Professors rely on grades, student evaluations, and other old-fashioned methods to figure out whether they are any good at teaching the things they have devoted their lives to knowing.
The university is doing what it can to become more data-driven. Over the past two decades, Michigan has built an infrastructure aimed at making it easier for administrators, researchers, and professors to use data to do their jobs better.
Laura M. Patterson, chief information officer, remembers arriving on campus in 1993 to take a job as registrar. At the time, the university was still using a decentralized, ink-and-paper filing system.
“I had a staff of about 86 people who typed information onto paper records and then made photocopies of 40,000 records every term and delivered those photocopies out to every school and college,” says Ms. Patterson. “Then they’d go in filing cabinets.”