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An Introduction: Big Data

As everything turns away from paper and moves to electronic – banks, education, entrepreneurs – we are left with an overwhelming byproduct of digitalized data.  Some people are looking into analyzing these massive amounts of data, called big data, in order to come up with more effective strategies for businesses, and it’s getting a lot of attention from competitive companies who want an edge.

Big data is also stirring up the educational world.  In fact, earlier this year, Bill Gates suggested that big data could save American schools by more effectively ranking colleges and evaluating teachers’ performance.  While some are still trying to figure out what this could mean for schools, there are companies who have already launched products using big data to help schools and students.

An example of this is Knewton, a company that is using big data by offering a digital education program to personalize student’s performance and is currently being used by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Pearson.  Currently, the Knewton platform is only being offered to educational institutions and publishers, but the next step is to let students and teachers use the product and, according to their website, will help “teachers to put their time to better use.  No need to wait until the next test to discover gaps in knowledge — Knewton provides educators with a real-time snapshot of student achievement and concept-level proficiency.”

Knewton uses “adaptive learning” technology which Newsweek’s Anya Kamenetz describes in her article, What if You Could Learn Everything?, as “an increasingly popular catchphrase denoting educational software that customizes its presentation of material from moment to moment based on the user’s input.”  Kamenetz states that Knewton’s vision, and perhaps other companies like Knewton, is that within five or 10 years all paper resources will move entirely to the iPad or its equivalent and “adaptive learning will help each user find the exact right piece of content needed, in the exact right format, at the exact right time, based on previous patterns of use.”

Companies like Knewton certainly give the promise of a higher efficient classroom, but there are security concerns with putting big data to educational use.  inBloom, a company funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, uses big data to gather information and store into a single system for school districts.  The security of such a cloud based system was questioned and a couple of days ago inBloom was dropped from the Colorado school district, Jeffco.  The Jeffco board president, Lesley Dahlkemper, told OurColoradoNews.com that, “I think we heard loud and clear that there were concerns from our community about collecting student achievement data and putting it on a server other than the district server.”

inBloom has sparked a national debate about big data and if student data amassed by a company can be trusted.  However, higher education and MOOCs may be the perfect place for big data to flex its muscles. MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, already have all of the data online and could easily use big data to analyze student’s performance and personalize their learning experience.  Some are arguing that using MOOCs and big data combined could revolutionize learning.

Doug Guthrie of US News is one of those people.  In his article, The Coming Big Data Education Revolution, Guthrie writes, “Imagine how such knowledge can be used to give instructors the necessary intelligence to directly address a student’s learning style or deficits,” Guthrie writes, “In this way, big data can amplify factors that contribute to student success – personalized courses, the instructor-student connection and a wired sense of community – despite being in the detached online learning environment.”

If it’s true that the classroom will digitalize in the next decade, big data may be able to personalize education in a way that was not possible before.  Big data-based products would be able to take the load off of teachers who are currently dealing with budget cuts and increased class size and help school districts organize their student data in a more efficient way.  However, in order for the transition to be successful, educators and vendors need to figure out how big data can be integrated into teaching and administration processes in an effective manner.

Check back here to follow this conversation and for updates on the topic of big data.

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.

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