68 Percent of Statistics Are Meaningless, Purdue University Edition

I don’t know of any other way to put this. Purdue University is harming higher education by knowingly peddling questionable research for the purpose of institutional self-aggrandizement. Purdue leadership should issue a retraction and an apology.

We have covered Purdue’s Course Signals extensively here at e-Literate. It is a pioneering program, and evidence does suggest that it helps at-risk students pass courses. That said, Purdue came out with a later study that is suspect. The study in question claimed that students who used Course Signals in consecutive classes were more likely to see improved performance over time, even in courses that did not use the tool. Mike Caulfield looked at the results and had an intuition that the result of the study was actually caused by selection bias. Students who stuck around to take courses in consecutive semesters were more likely to…stick around and take more courses in consecutive semesters. So students who stuck around to take more Course Signals courses in consecutive semesters would, like their peers, be more likely to stick around and take more courses. Al Essa did a mathematical simulation and proved Mike’s intuition that Purdue’s results could be the result of selection bias. Mike wrote up a great explainer here on e-Literate that goes into all the details. If there was indeed a mistake in the research, it was almost certainly an honest one. Nevertheless, there was an obligation on Purdue’s part to re-examine the research in light of the new critique. After all, the school was getting positive press from the research and had licensed the platform to SunGard (now Ellucian). Furthermore, as a pioneering and high-profile foray into learning analytics, Course Signals was getting a lot of attention and influencing future research and product development in the field. We needed a clearer answer regarding the validity of the findings.

Despite our calls here on the blog, and our efforts to contact Purdue directly, and attention the issue got in the academic press, Purdue chose to remain silent on the issue. Our sources informed us at the time that Purdue leadership was aware of the controversy surrounding the study and made a decision not to respond. Keep in mind that the research was conducted by Purdue staff rather than faculty. As a results, those researchers did not have the cover of academic freedom and were not free to address the study on their own without first getting a green light from their employer. To make matters more complicated, none of the researchers on that project still work at Purdue anymore. So the onus was on the institution to respond. They chose not to do so.

That was bad enough. Today it became clear that Purdue is actively promoting that questionable research. In a piece published today in Education Dive, Purdue’s “senior communications and marketing specialist” Steve Tally said

the initial five- and six-year raw data about the impact of Signals showed students who took at least two Signals-enabled courses had graduation rates that were 20% higher. Tally said the program is most effective in freshman and sophomore year classes.

“We’re changing students’ academic behaviors,” Tally said, “which is why the effect is so much stronger after two courses with Signals rather than one.” A second semester with Signals early on in students’ degree programs could set behaviors for the rest of their academic careers.

It’s hard to read this as anything other than a reference the study that Mike and Al challenged. Furthermore, the comment about “raw data” suggests that Purdue has made no effort to control for the selection bias in question. Two years after the study was challenged, they have not responded, not looked into it, and continue to use it to promote the image of the university.

This is unconscionable. If an academic scholar behaved that way, she would be ostracized in her field. And if a big vendor like Pearson or Blackboard behaved that way, it would be broadly vilified in the academic press and academic community. Purdue needs to come clean. They need to defend the basis on which they continue to make claims about their program the same way a scholar applying for tenure at their institution would be expected to be responsible for her claims. Purdue’s peer institutions likewise need to hold the school accountable and let them know that their reputation for integrity and credibility is at stake.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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