Underdog Schools, Big Dog Companies & Big Data

In October 2012, the Harvard Business Review dubbed Big Data in business “The Management Revolution,” as businesses looked to transform data collected into dollars accumulated in company bank accounts. (McAffee 2012) And in 2014, big data has also struck a chord in schools, aiming to help teachers drowning in data to swim above the sea, and funnel data collected into future student achievement. We are treading water amidst the technological tide that is “The Big Data Education Revolution.” (Guthrie 2013) (This term, begging for streamlining, is thanks to US News.)

Lisa Fleisher (2014) of the Wall Street Journal notes: “With the shift to computerized testing, tablets in the classroom and digitized personal records, schools are collecting more data than ever on how children are doing. Now, some educators believe, it’s time to put that data to use.”

Pause. Now. Now, some educators believe, it’s time to put that data to use. What is the point of collecting data that is solely to be dumped into forgotten folders in a cloud?

The Economist (2014) isolates the source of the issue: “School systems were being swamped by data—like every other sector of the economy. And like other industries, they had no idea how to respond.” Just because there is a demand for data does not mean educators must cram as much data collection into the day as possible. Rather, educators must work together and problem-solve to identify a plausible response for the vast range of possibilities that exist in technology-mediated data collection.

Johns Hopkins University professor Steven Ross forecasts the significance of big data in education’s future, that “using data to help tailor education to individuals will drive learning in the future.” (Anderle 2014) Lately, differentiated and personalized learning have surged forth as necessities in education; these ethereal dreams are having their edges singed off by the reality that is technology.

“Personalized learning is not a replacement for teachers,” Peggy Grant (2014) cautions in Personalized Learning, “Rather, it provides the data and strategies educators need to make better pedagogical and interventional decisions to allow students to learn in their own ways, at their own paces.” Differentiation for all students is possible.

However: “Collecting data just for the sake of having it is not nearly as important as how actionable the data is,” warns Andy Myers of Renaissance Learning. (Anderle 2014) Data is actionable. It informs decisions and propels educators into action.

And if it didn’t before, it should now.

For some educators, big data has been an issue best tackled by outside learning analytics companies, like Renaissance Learning. Teach to One, a program enacted by New Classrooms Innovations Partners, works with schools to track data, informing educators about whether students have mastered math concepts or not. The software assigns students personalized quizzes and lessons, which target their weaknesses’ further students take lessons in various settings: “in a classroom with a live teacher, with a one-on-one tutor online or even through computer lessons.” The software is able to identify which settings allow each student to learn best. (Fleisher 2014)

For some educators, this is quite encouraging. I would be interested in learning which settings suit my students best. However, for me as an English teacher, I find myself thinking, “Math is highly quantitative. What will be done about tracking data for more qualitative content areas, like Language Arts?” Khan Academy is renowned for its game-like, interactive website, tutoring students online in math subjects. I have yet to find a similar English/Language Arts-based website that can deliver a similar experience.

Big data holds big promises for those in education, but I remain leery as of yet, skeptical that big dog companies like Renaissance Learning (last sold at $1.1 billion) may take advantage of the underdog school just trying to help its students learn. Technology-mediated data collection is a godsend to teachers looking to track student progress. But it is also the never-ending bucket bailing torrential downpours of data into classrooms. If I have one caution then, let it be this: Let data inform, but do not let it become the uniform that schools must wear to prove their students’ worth.

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