I created the early versions of Waypoint to begin answering these questions for myself – and only myself.

I was teaching 100+ first year engineering students per term, with 50% turnover across three terms (a trimester school). The curriculum was a wonderful fusion of introduction to engineering design, literature, and personal narrative with a focus on critical thinking and information literacy.

But I had the suspicion that I was rubber-stamping students who were already quite accomplished, and spending a lot of time creating feedback for students who hardly improved/changed at all.

As we developed Waypoint, I realized the “value add” question was broadly applicable to all educators; whether progressive faculty interested in the effects of their teaching, administrators worrying about changing accreditation requirements, or a combination of the two. “Learning outcomes” has become one of the largest questions in higher education over the last five years.

But I didn’t really get any closer to understand my impact on students’ learning. Until today.

LinkedIn has a very cool “People You May Know” feature. It is more visual than Facebook, and the faces just keep coming as long as you keep scrolling.

LinkedIn is more prescient than Facebook for me, its suggestions more accurate. My Facebook network is static. Not many of my high school and college friends are active. But LinkedIn is a dynamic view into my network present, past and future.

I am connected to a number of students I taught between 2003 and 2005. And in turn they are connected to probably most of the students that went through the university. They graduated into the economic downturn of 2008-2010, and their LinkedIn stories are an evocative view into what really happened to them after they left my classroom.

The face that caught my attention is not one with positive connotations for me. Which is why I clicked on her profile – to find out what happened to this student who wrote 1.5 page essays in a text message style that she fought hard keep. It turns out, at least professionally, not much.

Her profile was quite detailed (and didn’t have one “u” for “you” – maybe I did succeed!). She enjoyed three excellent co-op engineering experiences with major chemical companies before graduating in 2009 with a BS in Chemical Engineering. From a retention perspective, I suppose this is a win: women engineer graduates in the expected time.

But there is no employment record since graduation. She’s receiving an MBA from a second or third tier university this spring. She has less than 100 connections on LinkedIn.

I keep very good records, and this student brought back memories of the 2004-2005 academic year and a plague of plagiarism cases we dealt with.

So I dug up about 10 names – “A” students, students who were accused of plagiarism but cleared, and students who were confirmed plagiarizers.

As an aside, I think a student plagiarizing a personal narrative assignment during their first term in college is either a degenerate cheat or someone crying out for help. The cheats are far less in number than the overwhelmed students who need a combination of direct intervention, focused follow up, and a recalibration of their ethics-o-meter.

Using LinkedIn to make a broad statement about student learning outcomes occurred to me when I dug up a second student. This student was accused of plagiarism but was ultimately cleared of charges through documentation of drafts and teacher conferences

She has  well over 200 LI connections, a terrific work history, and received a Masters in engineering from a Research 1 institution in 2010. A stark difference. I continued digging:

  • Student #3
    • confirmed plagiarist with a 70% exact match on a first term paper
    • ~80 connections on LinkedIn
    • No LinkedIn profile to speak of
    • No LinkedIn profile picture
    • Not clear if he ever graduated
    • Currently employed at an auto parts distributor
  • Student #4
    • Identified twice during his freshman year as a plagiarist
    • No LinkedIn profile available
  • Student #5
    • Confirmed as paraphrasing extensively from another student’s paper
    • Over 500 Facebook connections
    • LinkedIn profile states that he is a “student” at the University (not a graduate)
    • One (1) LinkedIn connection
  • Student #6
    • Confirmed to have used a number of Internet sources verbatim without citation.
    • Graduated with a BS in Engineering
    • 1000+ Facebook friends
    • Less than 100 LinkedIn connections
    • No work history or profile information on LinkedIn
  • Student #7
    • Confirmed extensively copying from an Internet source
    • Graduated with a BS in Engineering
    • Grammatical errors in his LinkedIn profile
    • Currently seeking work
    • No profile or work history on LinkedIn
    • Less than 10 connections on LinkedIn

This is by no means a scientific inquiry. Although has anyone looked at this sort of data on a large scale?

To balance the profile that quickly develops from looking at these troubled students, I chose students at random from my records.

I chose students who received an “A” for the fall term of 2004 in our course.

The first few I found on LinkedIn did not necessarily have more information than the students I detailed above. Again, obviously not a scientific study. I can imagine many happily employed engineers not worrying about their LinkedIn profile…so perhaps the story I was beginning to put together was flaming out.

Then I zeroed in on students with high GPAs (above 3.5) mid-way through their college career and an “A” that fall term.

I did not teach any of these students directly, although they were probably in larger lectures I gave:

  • Student #8
    • 500+ LinkedIn connections
    • Extensive job history and profile
    • Graduate degree from Research 1 institution
    • Currently a partner in a construction business
  • Student #9
    • Less than 100 LinkedIn connections
    • Basic profile without a photograph
    • Graduated with a BS Engineering and is enrolled in a top ten engineering PhD program
  • Student #10
    • Over 150 LinkedIn connections
    • Basic profile without a photograph
    • Employed since graduation at a Fortune 100 company
  • Student #11
    • Less than 50 LinkedIn connections
    • Brief but detailed work history without photograph
    • Earned a MS in a related field alongside his BS Engineering degree
    • US Army construction engineer

Can we conclude anything from this admittedly weak sample? Perhaps that engineers should spend a bit more time polishing their LinkedIn profile?

I think the message is much more concerning than whether LinkedIn is more or less useful at different points in your career and in different industries/functions. Sales, marketing, and biz dev people are always going to be more focused on networking; brilliant individual contributor engineers may not need to schmooze and self-promote.

The message I see is that the education process these students embarked upon, at great expense, seems to have done little to affect their trajectory. The students in trouble as first term freshman have had a largely uneven and disappointing results. The students who had their act together seem to be in a great place, despite the economy.

I think many employers look at universities as a filtering machine, particularly in engineering. Give me a student with a 3.5 GPA or higher, who graduated from a top 100 engineering school, and I’ll know they’ll prosper and contribute in just about any position I put them. But I don’t think society looks at the giant investment in higher education as a way to process people and weed them out. And the push for “outcomes based assessment” assumes a mission to create a delta: to take students in with X capabilities and graduate them with 10X capabilities.

Are there any longitudinal studies using LinkedIn data? Is LinkedIn looking at this kind of data? Perhaps the greatest outcomes assessment database is owned by Reid Hoffman and crew…who just experienced one of the worst computer security breaches of all time

Teachers have a tendency to take the weight of the world on their shoulders and blame themselves for class sessions that go south, or students who don’t fulfill their potential. We can’t be responsible for everything. But looking back at a few dozen students with whom I spent considerable time and energy in 2004-2005, I can’t help feel that I did little but filter them so employers could make efficient choices. It’s popular to throw rocks at Facebook, for any number of reasons, but a favorite is the old “if you aren’t the one paying, you aren’t the customer.” Meaning Facebook provides a fantastic social platform for free so that it can sell its users and their data to advertisers. But students and their parents are paying for their university experience – with perhaps little to show for it. Their trajectories are set, a combination of socio-economic and genetic factors teeing them up for a future that is little affected by a university education. This might be no different than saying “college is what you make of it.” Personal responsibility trumps all. So perhaps, instead of building new dorms to hold more and more students, universities should be looking to qualify their incoming students and understand the trajectory that is already well underway. To discover who is open to the wonderful benefits of a university education, not hoover up as many paying customers as possible. The most progressive institutions, both traditional and for-profit, are investing deeply in doing just this. Perhaps a deep dive into LinkedIn and related data would help accelerate that movement and create a compelling ROI analysis for schools, students, parents, and other stakeholders.