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How Analytics Can Change the Way We Think About the Humanities

The other week I was listening to a podcast hosted by a few of the guys over at Andreesen Horowitz, the topic of which was the intersection of the technology world and academia. For those who don’t know, Andreesen Horowitz is a leading venture capital firm that has led investments in companies like: Twitter, Oculus VR, and Buzzfeed. The conversation was broad ranging, and I encourage you to listen to it all, but the one thing that I couldn’t stop thinking about afterwards was: is there a place for the humanities in the university of the future? 

It’s clear that college students today are increasingly focused on technical and professional disciplines. To see this in action, one need only see that nearly12% of Harvard’s student body was enrolled in CS-50, their introductory computer science course, this fall—those are Econ 101 figures, a class that nearly everyone has taken in college, forever—that’s no small feat. So what does this demonstrated shift in student interests mean for the future of humanities education?

Let me start by saying, that I think that there is absolutely a future for the humanities in the university of the future. The study of non-technical disciplines is important for developing critical thinking and communication skills that are useful in nearly any walk of life. That being said, there is a lot that students of the humanities can learn from their more technical, analytically focused, counterparts in engineering and professional fields. 

In my work here at MicroStrategy, I think about visualizing data quite a bit. When a friend of mine asked me this week to help him build some dashboards to use at an upcoming tradeshow, I had this podcast on my mind and decided to try something new. I set out to take a more analytical approach to the Revolutionary War, and build out a dashboard that explores some aspects of it. The dashboard uses estimates of force size and battle casualties to look at the conflict from a more data-driven perspective. 

As a former history major, I found this process really rewarding and it made me start thinking about all the ways that this type of dashboard could be used in an educational context. Think about the future of the textbook— what if in 10 years students could be carrying around interactive textbooks on their iPads, with dashboards like this included right in the app itself? What if teachers could use this type of analytics to engage more visual learners, or those with learning disabilities? Imagine reading a book about economics on your Kindle, and when you turn the page there is a visual interface that lets you explore the data that the author used to make her arguments. 

The biggest thing that I’ve learned at MicroStrategy is that enabling people to visually explore data completely changes the way that they understand it. It makes comprehension easier and makes it possible to uncover insights that might otherwise remain hidden in a spreadsheet. To date, the field of education—especially in the humanities—has been relatively untouched by analytics. That will change drastically over the next decade. As our educational institutions struggle with their changing identities, it’s important that those in the humanities show a willingness to embrace a more analytically driven approach to education.

Technical disciplines are great for teaching students how to think analytically. The traditional liberal arts excel at teaching students how to think conceptually. Those institutions that work to embrace the analytical and conceptual aspects of both will produce the students best suited to build, create, and thrive in today’s world—which is, after all, the point. 

I encourage you to check out our thread on the MicroStrategy Community to share your ideas about how analytics can be used in education and to continue the discussion!

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