Big Data and the Evolution of Education

by   |   January 27, 2016 5:30 am   |   2 Comments

Bernard Marr

Bernard Marr

Computers were born in colleges and universities, and by the 1980s they had become common in primary and secondary schools, too. Many people reading this probably had their first experience on the Internet at school or college. Information technology and education go hand in hand, and when it comes to big data, the situation is no different.

With learning now coordinated online and often taking place via a laptop or tablet, even when the student is in a traditional classroom environment, increasingly large amounts of data are being generated about how we learn. Technological innovators working with educational establishments are learning to transform this data into insights that can identify better teaching strategies, highlight areas where students may not be learning efficiently, and transform the delivery of education.

Here’s an overview of some of the cutting-edge uses of data and analytics technology I have encountered in education, and the ways in which they are helping both teachers and students to get the most out of their school days.

The Bigger Picture

Data and analytics increasingly are being used by forward-thinking teachers and school administrators to gain an overview of how the provision of services is going in their districts. In Wisconsin’s Menomonee Falls School District, data has been put to use for everything from improving classroom cleanliness to planning school bus routes, after department leaders were encouraged to attend classes themselves on how to gain insights from data and analytics.

Products and services are coming onto the market to automate many processes based on big data analytics. Eduvant, for example, is a tool that allows teachers and school administrators to get everything from an overview of the school’s performance against its targets around academic achievement and discipline, to warnings when an individual pupil’s learning is not progressing as expected.

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One U.S. middle school found that for some reason, the number of pupils being sent to the principal’s office for disciplinary reasons had grown by a worrying amount. On examining the data, they realized that this had coincided with a reduction in school excursions such as ice skating and sledding trips. When these were reinstated, behavior among students improved, leading to a noticeable reduction in the number being sent to see the principal.

Zeroing In

With hundreds of students to monitor, in the past it may have been difficult for teachers to identify which pupils were in need of an extra helping hand, and many of these decisions may have been based on gut feeling. In the past, the first sign that a pupil was in danger of failing might have been when he scored poorly on a test. A data-based approach to ongoing analysis and assessment of individual students’ achievements means that more personalized learning can be delivered – taking each student’s individual interests, prior knowledge, and level of academic ability into account.

Schools are also finding themselves armed with new technologies aimed at cutting down on exam cheating and plagiarism among students. The Proctortrack system aims to prevent cheating by using webcams and microphones to monitoring students while they sit for online exams. By building profiles of cheating behavior, it is able to recognize and flag suspicious activity. Proctortrack uses facial recognition to ensure that the correct student is taking the test, monitors computer activity to make sure that unauthorized sources aren’t being consulted, and even tracks eyeball movement during the assessment.

The system can be used for tests taking place in traditional exam room environments as well as remote learning. But the system has been criticized as “incredibly invasive” by security researcher Jake Binstein, who earlier this year published tips for students on how to get around it.

Remote Learning

Of course, not all education takes place in the classroom. Increasingly, thanks to the Internet, remote learning is making it possible for people of all ages whose geographical location, income level, or general lack of free time make attending traditional educational establishments difficult.

These Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs), which deliver all of the learning materials and exams via a computer or tablet, are providing a wealth of insights into the ways that people learn. Harvard University has recently developed tools that allow data gathered from these courses to be examined in real time. Data from the millions of people around the world who take these courses (and the far smaller number that actually complete them) can be analyzed to find the stumbling blocks that cause learners to fail.

Other services, such as Knewton, offer personalized learning that can be offered in or out of a classroom. Analytics are used to determine the best approach to teaching each student, and each of them are assessed alongside the millions of others using the system. Machine-learning algorithms then tailor each course to deliver “adaptive learning” based on the individual’s strength, weaknesses, and preferences.

Higher Learning

In universities too, big data technology is being put to use to improve the education experience. Lectures in higher education establishments, by their nature, are less interactive than school lessons – perhaps based on the flawed assumption that older, more advanced learners will need less prompting to pay attention in class. This means that lecturers often get very little feedback on the efficiency of their teaching before students either graduate or fail based on their final exams.

LectureTools, developed by a Michigan University professor who realized this problem, was sold to educational software specialists Echo360. It allows students to follow lecture presentations on their laptops, annotating them as they go along. It also lets them ask anonymous questions while the talk is in progress, which flash up on the lecturer’s screen. This makes it easier for students who may be embarrassed about speaking in public or their lack of understanding to engage rather than “switching off” and failing to learn. The system also includes an “I’m confused” button. Lecturers can look at usage statistics for all of these features and use it to fine-tune their delivery and engage with students when individual attention is required.

The education sector may have been slower than other sectors and industries to implement across-the-board big data solutions, but it is getting itself into gear. Some of the delay is due to the inherently political nature of anything concerning education, children, and young people. Those on the political right have often seen the encroachment of monitoring and surveillance technology into schools as a sign of a big interfering government, while those on the political left see it as evidence of further incursion into the education sector by corporate entities.

While there are well-founded reasons to take privacy and data security seriously, particularly when it comes to education, it’s equally important to ensure that education is delivered in the most effective way possible. Big data has the power to enable schools to run more efficiently, to enable teachers to impart knowledge more effectively, and to ensure that fewer children slip through the net, failing to have their educational needs met.

Bernard Marr is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, strategic performance consultant, and analytics, KPI, and big data guru. In addition, he is a member of the Data Informed Board of Advisers. He helps companies to better manage, measure, report, and analyze performance. His leading-edge work with major companies, organizations, and governments across the globe makes him an acclaimed and award-winning keynote speaker, researcher, consultant, and teacher.

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  1. Posted February 17, 2016 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Bernard Marr.

    Big data in education is about progress toward perfection. Tools are good, but schools should learn not to be dependent on them. May God Bless all.

  2. JBM
    Posted March 17, 2016 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    “Big data technology” helps to improve the education system.

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