Big Data’s revolutionary potential

Big data is mentioned in everything from business to privacy. But what is big data and how could it create radical change in education?

big-data-revolutionary-potentialA recent eSchool News story about five revolutionary new ed-tech trends suggests that big data is one of the technological developments that “will have a near-immediate impact on teaching and learning.”

The term “big data” is often mentioned in relation to everything from business to privacy. But just what is big data, and how, exactly, could it create radical change in education?

According to the company SAS, “Big Data is a popular term used to describe the exponential growth and availability of data, both structured and unstructured.” In the modern age, it comes as no surprise that data has – and continues to – become more widely available, and for a variety of purposes. SAS also explains that big data could become as important to our society as the internet, simply because having more data may lead to more accurate analysis – of everything.

In the original education trend article, Jason Ohler explained that Big Data assumes that the supply of data will never stop, and that the greater the abundance of data, the better. So, then, what happens to this data?

(Next page: How big data is processed)

It is processed by a predictive analytics marker, which makes a numbers-based forecast. In marketing, these forecasts can tell companies what consumers are buying and how to capitalize on it; in social media, they can illustrate popular news and communication trends; and they can also play a role in education.

First, the numbers are important: what kinds of data are collected, and from where. Information on millions of students nationwide, such as names, grades, test scores, and more can be used to improve teaching strategy and student engagement. For example, this eSchool News article from October 2013 details the advances made in New York to use collected student data.

ConnectEDU, a privately held technology company with a focus on student preparation, received an innovation grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for $500,000, which is meant to fund the creation of “a web-based teaching and learning platform that tracks student progress against literacy skills outlined in the Common Core.”

This tool will help teachers to better engage students with more personalized instruction and resources, based on a recommendations engine that follows student achievement data and compares it to curriculum criteria.

ConnectEDU is also one of the three companies involved in creating New York’s customized Education Data Portal. As directed by the state’s Education Department, the company is building this portal with the goal of putting it in the hands of educators, parents, and students to help them “track progress and deliver personalized learning resources for the Common Core Standards.”

The project in New York is not the first time that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has supported the use of big data. When eSchool News ranked Big Data as number four out of the top 10 ed-tech stories of 2013, it cited a database presented at last year’s SXSWedu conference – a joint venture of the Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and school officials from various states.

Run by a nonprofit called inBloom, this $1 million database was meant to chart the academic careers of public school students from kindergarten through college. It contained information on millions of children, ranging from their attendance records, attitudes toward school, and learning disabilities to personal information, like students’ names, addresses, and even Social Security numbers.

While local education officials have control over their students’ information, federal law does allow them to share their files with private companies in the education sector. These companies were excited by the opportunity presented by the database, but parents of students whose private information was out in the open protested.

There were concerns of leaks and abuse of this information. And now, Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to end New York’s relationship with inBloom, saying that increased data transparency and analytics are not the best way to achieve the state’s educational goals – especially in light of parental concerns.

But other developments show that big data truly can benefit schools, as explained in this recent Forbes piece featured on eSchool News, entitled “Big Data Goes to School.” It discusses the ways that public schools are now “harnessing” Big Data for purposes ranging from hiring to funding.

First among these major trends in Big Data use is adaptive learning, one example of which can be found in a product being developed by McGraw-Hill Education. “As a student reads and answers questions, the system tracks what the student doesn’t know and then presents that material. The system knows what questions to ask, and in what order, to maximize long-term retention,” the eSN article said.

Other important big data trends in the classroom include educational donations and the tracking of long-term outcomes. It is also suggested that big data could be used to predict teacher success. “Big Data has the potential to transform education from one-size-fits-all.”

While this is true, it is also important to tread carefully in the implementation of this revolutionary technology. There are risks involved with the exposure and analysis of this kind of information, but the innovations developed through this data processing could prove invaluable for education.

Carly Buchanan is an editorial intern at eSchool News.

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