Big Data is a Big Deal in Education
As an educator, the buzzword that has perennially turned me off is “data-driven decision-making”. This phrase seems to be often bandied about in order to justify education-related decisions with absolute certainty. If there are cold hard facts and numbers, then whatever assumption has been made related to education must be true.
My personal philosophy is that education requires more thoughtful, human-centered approaches to improvement and frankly, I have associated data-driven decision making with more corporate education views. Schools are not factories and I wonder if business practices are applicable to the field of education. Creating student-centered schools is not the same as building a business; I would argue that fostering educational change is a slower and infinitely more complex process. Those currently working in schools generally understand this; see this excellent article (make sure to check out the comments) from Mind/Shift for more educator opinions on the value of pursuing ‘new’ educational trends.
Since my days working a primary grade teacher specifically, the role of data has become more important in the life of a classroom and also incredibly important to school district personnel. While teachers have become more adept at leveraging formative assessments to adjust instruction as needed, high-stakes standardized testing of students has increased. As a parent and an educator, I’ve been keeping an eye on this data trend with mixed feelings. For instance, we just received our son’s PARCC scores in December (the test was taken last spring) and while he did fairly well, the general results for my state have been alarmingly poor leading me to wonder about the purpose and validity of such tests. The personalized PARCC report generated for our son gave us very basic insight into our son; I fail to see how this document will help us to help him improve as a student.
So, it’s safe to say I have not put a lot of weight on data or testing to transform our educational system. It’s not just that have I been dubious, but I frankly have not been that interested. Until now perhaps.
In October, I was invited out of the blue (or maybe I should say, out of Big Blue) to attend IBM’s Insight 2015: Lead in the Insight Economy as a special guest known as IBM Analytics Social VIP. Tech Director Susan Bearden was also invited and together we represented education while other Social VIPs represented other fields such as healthcare, government, and retail. Our role was to participate in the conference and to produce content reflecting on our experiences. This invitation was a bit of a surprise for me as IBM has not been on my radar in terms of education solutions or in the ed tech startup space. A friend encouraged me to go as it would a new and different learning experience, and I’m so glad that I stepped out of my comfort zone to do this. I learned a great deal.
IBM is indeed active in education through IBM Analytics for Education; my impression is that most of their activity has been in the higher ed space with predictive technology around student retention. That is changing, though, with the development of forthcoming dashboard tools that are powered by IBM’s Watson.
The theme of the Insight conference was Lead into the Insight Economy and examples of how data is benefitting our world permeated the conference. During the morning keynote general sessions each day, we learned about how various businesses and non-profits are partnering with IBM to use Watson analytics to customize and improve their work including the American Red Cross and the Weather Company which can send targeted weather alerts with the help of IBM. Other innovative companies highlighted including Boeing, Box, Twitter, and Local Motors. Check out General Session Day 1, General Session Day 2, and General Session Day 3.
The third general session was the most inspiring to me. One educator was also featured in the final keynote as an inspiring example of innovation. Fredi Lajvardi coaches the award-winning robotics team at a high poverty Arizona high school featured in the film Spare Parts which will be released on January 16. Interestingly, he has something to say about data in education, too. Check out Fredi’s recent comments about the state of teaching. We also had the opportunity to listen to Hollywood production duo Brian Grazer and Ron Howard which was particularly thrilling for me as I’m a fan of Brian’s This I Believe essay, Disrupting My Comfort Zone.
During the course of the conference, we also attended several breakouts, design studio sessions, talked with fellow attendees and IBM execs and regularly compared notes with 2 other Social VIPS representing healthcare, Shahid Shah and Andre Blackman. We found that our two sectors actually had a lot in common.
Here are a few artifacts from these interactions:
- Public Sector Watch at Insight: Privacy in Healthcare and Education Analytics Susan Bearden, Lucy Gray, Andre Blackman, and Shahid Shah
- Insights from Insight: Utilizing Institutional Data to Empower Students and Faculty Susan Bearden, Lucy Gray and Will Wyatt of Abilene Christian University
Susan and I participated in a debate during Insight2015 that was taped, but I can’t locate the video at this time and will link to it at some point. We discussed the implications of big data and the reticence by parents and educators to embrace this trend. Privacy is a major concern and companies need to fully educate their users/consumers on how big data will be protected and can potentially benefit them in innovative ways. We also discussed the idea of being a good data citizen as part of overall digital citizenship; people need to understand their role in data collection, their rights, and the potential advantages and pitfalls.
All in all, attending Insight2015 was a powerful, eye-opening experience for me. It has made me sit up and pay more attention to the future of data analytics, particuarly in relation to education. I’m still on the fence about how data can be used in positive ways, but I am more open to exploring the possibilities and to exploring further the impact of data on the ed tech industry as a whole.
Here are some key takeaways for me from this experience:
- I’m not so sure corporations truly understand the unease felt by the public towards data and privacy.
- Standardized testing is just one element in a slew of data types that school districts must look at.
- Do we need more data? Or do we need to dig in better to the data we already have? How do we help educators interpret data?
- Why cannot more imaginative uses of data be developed by cognitive scientists? IBM is developing data platforms, but how can they help educators measure those difficult to measure 21st century soft skills that can’t be measured on a standardized test?
- How does design thinking mesh with data analytics in education? IBM had design studio sessions that felt more like focus groups than true design thinking workshops.
- Humans still make bad decisions even when data is involved. Sometimes they even ignore data. :)
My next steps are to start reading up on recent events in the world of educational technology so that I can better understand the concerns of parents and teachers. Specifically, I’m starting with this New York Times article on inBloom, a Gates funded data initiative that infamously imploded and closed in April 2014. I also plan on reading up on the recent beef that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has had with Google as that has been making headlines recently. I urge other parents and educators to not necessarily become jaded by these kinds of headlines, but to become more informed so that they can ask the right questions in their roles. Below are some resources for further exploration, and I hope to touch on related topics in my writings from time to time during the course of this year. I’d love to know your thoughts and recommended resources, so feel free to leave a comment.
Resources related to IBM’s Insight2015
- Analytics for K12 school performance and student retention
- IBM Insight 2015 Photos
- IBM Public Sector Talks #7: Enhancing the student experience with analytics
- Day 1: Spotlight on the Public Sector: IBM Insight, Day 1
- Day 1: Insights in 5 with Jen Q. Public: Key takeaways from the public sector track
- Day 2: Insights in 5 with Jen Q. Public: Public sector conference highlights
- Day 2: Spotlight on the public sector: IBM Insight, day 2
- Day 3: Insights in 5 with Jen Q. Public: Top stories from the public sector
- Day 3: Spotlight on the public sector: IBM Insight, day 3
- Insights from Insight: Utilizing institutional data to empower students and faculty
- Jen Q. Public: Can Cognitive Learning Keep Students in School?
- Public Sector Watch at Insight: Education and healthcare applications roundtable
- Public Sector Watch at Insight: Privacy in healthcare and education analytics
- A Student’s Story: How Analytics Can Make a Difference in Education
Resources For Understanding the Role of Data in Education:
- 5 Questions Schools Should Ask to Protect Students’ Privacy
- ATLIS Webinar on Student Data and Privacy
- Common Sense Kids Action: Privacy and Safety
- Common Sense Blasts SIIA for Supporting Student Data Privacy Loopholes
- Department of Ed Releases Student Privacy Guidance for Schools
- Education Framework
- Google is Tracking Students as it Sells More Products to Schools, Privacy Advocates Warn
- Google’s Student Data Practices Run Afoul of Privacy Advocates
- Guide to Chromebook Privacy Settings for Students
- Guide to Google Account Privacy Settings for Students
- Education Data Privacy Resources from NASBE
- iKeepSafe Launches California K12 Student Privacy Program — Independent Assessment for EdTech Products
- inBloom May Be Dead But the Dream Lives On at Carnegie Mellon
- Rewriting the Social Contract to Safeguard Student Data Privacy
- Student Privacy Initiative at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society
- Student Privacy Pledge
- This Fantastic Documentary Lays Out Everything About Online Privacy
- Where Teens Seek Online Privacy Advice: New Findings from Pew and the Berkman Center
- Whose Data Is It, Anyway? An EdSurge Debate on Privacy