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.

Susan Bearden and Lucy Gray to the left on the front row. Photo from

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:

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:

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

Resources For Understanding the Role of Data in Education:



Apple Distinguished Educator Lucy Gray is an educator and consultant. She is also the co-founder of Actionable Innovations Global PLC!

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Lucy Gray

Apple Distinguished Educator Lucy Gray is an educator and consultant. She is also the co-founder of Actionable Innovations Global PLC!