Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023|
Share this story
There are any number of famous phrases about the relationship of knowledge and power:
Scientia potentia est (knowledge is power) — Thomas Hobbes/Francis Bacon
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” — Alexander Pope
Sapientia est potentia (wisdom is power) — origin unknown
Wisdom brings strength, and knowledge gives power. — Proverbs 24:5
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” — Albert Einstein
In this day and age of big data and information overload, it seems more and more that the phrase “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is the one that holds sway. We do not all have the same information, and it is harder and harder to determine how reliable information might be.
On the one hand, the democratization of information is exciting. We can get things unfiltered by editors or publishers. On the other hand, everyone can post just about whatever they want, especially on social media, and quality control is often sadly lacking.
We include information literacy among our learning outcomes at UH Hilo so that they can avoid the pitfalls of bad information from less than reliable sources. Whether one agrees with the information is less important than knowing if we can depend on it.
Do students know that the sources from which they are getting information are relevant, credible and appropriate? Do they have a clear understanding of how to use the information they find? Acquiring these skills allows students to be empowered by the information rather than find themselves misled by bad information or bad actors.
Information also needs to come in formats that we can understand and use. The University of Hawaii, like all universities, gathers all manner of information on enrollment, grades, student progress to their degrees, etc. There is so much data that one finds it difficult to pinpoint the specific information one needs.
For this reason, we have recently acquired dashboards that provide visual tools to help break down and absorb the data. I am definitely a more visual learner, so charts and graphs help me understand the story the data tells. Even our faculty and staff, all well-versed in information literacy, sometimes find it easier to get to an answer from a chart than from rows and rows of numbers.
Our new dashboards allow faculty and staff to see what is going on in their particular department. How quickly are students making progress to their degree in business or history? Which agriculture course is the most challenging? How many students start as pre-health majors and then switch to sociology?
By looking at patterns and trends in the information, faculty are empowered to make changes to support students. We use the data as a flashlight to point the way forward, uncover things that may not be visible without these tools.
Next fall, UH Hilo will formally launch its new degree program in Data Science. This new program provides an exciting career option for our students, as they will learn how to pull data and information together and present it to others. They will learn how to analyze so-called “big data” and create tools to study large quantities of information in a variety of fields.
As we become more and more dependent on data and data systems, students will learn how to be the skilled professionals that gather, process, store, analyze and visualize data. They will be able to help the decision makers in any number of fields — business, health care, natural science, social services, education, etc.
Data is but one type of information, however. Many organizations tout the fact that they are data-driven. That phrase has always made me uncomfortable because behind many points of data there are living breathing human beings, and all data needs to be understood in context.
At the university, we seek to be data-informed. Data provides us with valuable information, but we still want to approach it with wisdom as well as understanding. The more we know, the more questions we have, to recall the phrase by Einstein above.
Wisdom, understanding and responsibility need to guide our approach to information. Just piles of data or facts do not tell the whole story of our reality. How we engage it makes all the difference.
Bonnie D. Irwin is chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Her column appears monthly in the Tribune-Herald.
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *