Big Data in Education: Full of Promise, Uncertain Future

This is What Big Data in Education Looks Like

One educational practitioner used Big Data to catch an anomaly in a course that was designed to progress smoothly from one module to the next. He found that the students in the class progressed from module 1 to module 7 as expected. At that point, however, most of them went back and replayed module 3 again. It became very clear that the material in module 3 hadn’t “stuck.” This led the course developers to revisit that module and upgrade it. They did this even though none of the students complained about that module. By monitoring what students actually did on a massive scale, the company saw an opportunity to upgrade its course and did it. In this blog, we will discuss the importance of big data in education.

In another instance, students were stumbling on a particular question and were notified immediately that they missed it. Many of those students read the related forum material, reworked the quiz, and got the answer right. When the course instructor discovered this through Big Data analysis, he inserted a recommendation in the course for students who got the answer to that question wrong: He referred them to the forum post that had proven useful for everyone else.

Spanish speaking students studying English via Duolingo would stumble and fall when learning the English pronouns he, she, and it. This led to high dropout rates. Why? Well, Spanish doesn’t have an equivalent to it. This was a new concept – and new way of thinking – for Spanish speaking students. The solution was simple. The course postponed the introduction of the word it for a few weeks and student retention soared.

New York City has a program School of One. In this school, each student gets his own playlist of modules to study. The students need to learn math. They go at their own speed. If one module doesn’t do the trick for them, they try another. Now, the real question is, “Does it work?” Well, independent studies by a private educational service reported that students who went through this program did substantially better than those who did not. Yes, it works.

What is Big Data in Education?

There are two major areas of interest in the field of Big Data in Education: institutional and educational.

Institutions collect masses of data from traditional sources as well as new sources to develop their policies and plans. The new sources include Facebook posts and Twitter tweets to get a sense of the sentiments among current students, prospective students, and the community at large. The institution can also pick up macroeconomic and microeconomic data that are useful but were prohibitively expensive to include before.

Educational or instructive purposes are intended to personalize the learning process for each individual student. Here, schools at all levels can collect detailed data about students’ progress through their learning journey on a moment by moment basis. The idea is that the system can identify when a student is caught in a vortex that prevents her from making progress. At that point, the system could notify the teacher about the problem a student is having at the moment it occurs. On the other hand, the system could be designed to introduce a tutorial that deals with the problem area as it occurs, not weeks later when a failing score highlights the students’ learning problems.

This student oriented real-time instructional intervention has several benefits. First, it helps the students well before frustration, disillusionment, and failure set in. This helps the students to become proficient in the subject material – even master it. It also has the benefit of assisting the teacher to focus her attention on just the sort of help that is needed. This is particularly beneficial in large classrooms. Students’ success in the classroom will lead to them staying in school and gravitate toward matriculation. Success in school is correlated with success in the work place.

In addition, as students stay in school and graduate, the school builds its reputation as a place where students can come to succeed. This attracts new students. Further, by keeping students in school until graduation, the school improves its revenues as well as its reputation. These retention and graduation rates loom large in school evaluations.

The US is Not a Leader

Ironically, the US is not a leader in education when compared with other developed countries in the world. We have seen class sizes in the public schools grow to the point that teachers can no longer provide individual attention. Funding to schools at all levels is constantly being cut back. There is no question that America is home to some of the leading universities in the world, but those universities are not characteristic of the country as a whole.

One way of dealing with this growing gap between the quality of education and access to education in the US compared to other countries is to adopt distant education and Big Data technologies. These technologies promise to offer education aligned with the students’ schedules, not the class room schedules. Further, it promises to offer meaningful tutorials on problem areas tailored to each student as and where they are needed. These benefits are likely to be compelling in informing educational policy.

AltSchool May Be the Extreme

If you want to know what Big Data in Education on steroids looks like, look at AltSchool. This San Francisco Bay Area company will record everything about their students while they are in school. That means EVERYTHING. It will track how they go through their learning experiences – heart rate, eye movement, facial expressions, movement from one part of a computer screen another, how long their mouses hover over items on their screens. They will record every word. Almost every thought. Everything. All of this data is then fed into a Big Data database. Top notch data scientists will comb through this data to learn in detail how to personalize the learning experience for each child.

AltSchool might find that some students improve their mathematics studies after exercising in the schoolyard. Or a student starts incorporating new words in her vocabulary after watching a particular video. Then the school will incorporate those insights into the student’s daily routine and see whether the benefits persist over time. In fact, the school planners would use Big Data to look for an ongoing series of tweaks they could make. That will provide a stream of changes that may (or may not) provide enduring value. This is personalization at the extreme.

Some argue that this sort of super tight oversight smacks of Big Brother -- and maybe it does. But if it pays off in terms of enhanced results for the students, then it may be worthwhile. There are probably hundreds of practices we respect in everyday life today that may have seemed strange – even objectionable – our forefathers a few generations ago. For example, it was less than three generations ago that it was common practice to whip children who performed poorly in school; today that practice would be unheard of.

Huge Investments

GSV Advisors estimated that the e-learning market in the US is over $100 billion. Further, it’s growing at 25% a year. Well-established companies like McGraw-Hill, News Corp., Pearson, and Kaplan have spent billions to get into this market. Further, there are a lot of start-up companies mushrooming in this space as well. We’ve listed just a handful of some of the notables below, but there are many other worthy companies that didn’t make this list