How Big Data is Disrupting Education

  • 11 March 2018
  • Walter Couture

Big Data and analytics are the Hammer of Thor in the real world of education. They can be the most powerful weapon in the battle to change the way we teach our children. And, although sometimes lost, like the Hammer itself, these forces are coming into focus more and more as the answer to understanding how children learn and how they can be better taught.

Big data is defined as a set of data so large, it can be analyzed only by a computer. And analytics guide the way data is collected, analysed and applied. Where does this data come from, and who is looking at it, studying it, and using it?

Information gathered today in the classroom has come from teacher-student interaction and test results. Teachers prepare lesson plans, teach units to all students at the same time, provide standard tests in standard ways, and measure results of each student against the results of other students.

Disruption is under way

But new information is now being gathered in unprecedented ways creating big data for understanding how each child learns, rather than how the class learns.

Think about a classroom with cameras that capture every child’s facial expressions, movements, and social interactions every day.

Think about those cameras, maybe with some on the ceiling, that capture whatever the student touches and whatever the student says during the day.

Think about the computers, Chromebooks, tablets and maybe cell phones that the students use, and the tracking of every keystroke. And think about the watch-monitor, the Fitbit-like device, they may be wearing to record their pulse, breathing, meal times, and more.

Now you start to see how big data may be captured to create a three-dimensional learning profile for each student. This is not fiction at all. 

This approach is definitely disruptive and a bit controversial. It’s a little Orwellian and reminds us of Orwell’s “1984” description of a totalitarian world. But it is an attempt to make a huge change for the better in our educational philosophy. It attempts to use big data to lead us to an understanding of how to better teach children in the way they like to learn and in a way they learn best.

The method was used in the initial stages of development, in a school cluster in California called AltSchool, a startup that represents the most aggressive initiative to date into the world of big data and analytics for K-12 education.

At AltSchool, software and algorithms searched the big data collected for patterns in each student's level of engagement, emotional state and moods, use of classroom and other resources, social habits, language and vocabulary, attention span, academic performance, and more.

NBA style

The National Basketball League has had the same kind of problems facing the education industry. No team organizations could agree on what the best metrics were for measuring effectiveness. But recently, a few forward-looking teams have been building new information management systems involving big data.

NBA arenas now have many sophisticated camera systems to capture every location, movement, and timing of player actions 25 times per second throughout the game. Teams also track biometric data like sleeping habits and exertion levels.

The NBA big data has led to changing the game. Insights from this data have led to more 3-point shots being taken and more layups because the data said these techniques were the most effective in producing points.

The “passive observation” technique is used in other industries, too, like retail. Stores use video cameras to monitor shopping floors and shoppers’ activities, to track their locations and movements and everything they look at or touch. All this information is collected and connected to purchases – big data, leading to changes in marketing direction.

AltSchool used motion-tracking algorithms to collect and analyze student activities in the same way as the NBA, other pro sports organizations, and retail businesses.

Big data gives insights

The innovative companies in the field of education are hoping big data and analytics will change the game there, too. Maybe the insights will be that 4th graders perform better at math after exercising. Maybe it will show that girls do better at science on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

And maybe Susie is using new vocabulary words in conversation with friends, or Jane is showing Sally how to do the new math. The insights from big data would be distributed, with proper controls, to teachers, parents, and students through a school learning platform. It could lead to recommendations for class scheduling, customized assignments for each student, and different learning activities and curriculum changes.

Suggestions can be tracked for effectiveness, creating a feedback loop of insights, results, experiments, changes, and observations. Information based on big data and cloud computing can be gathered by IoT (Internet of Things) and evaluated by learning analytics. The result could be a constant improvement in individualized learning solutions, taking into account the personal characteristics of each student.

Big data is being used in other ways, too, to provide more comprehensive information on school absenteeism, testing effectiveness, and teacher development, as well as providing the basis for new edtech resources like classroom and remote teaching robots. It’s also being used to plan new school locations based on population changes.

But wholesale changes in the education world will take time. Teachers and school systems are slow to change. School districts have data stored in different silos and find it difficult to combine the information for any meaningful analysis.

AltSchool’s Ventilla is still hopeful of a breakthrough. He says, “The model for education right now is not very susceptible to change. But give us time.”

About Walter Couture

Walter is an award-winning writer and blogger; former K12 teacher, corporate and college executive. Managed $100 million sales force for Received BA in Psychology from University of Minnesota, MA in Teaching & Learning with Technology from Ashford University.