Are Big Data approaches the answer to K12 educational pain points?

Summary:It seems to me that big corporations have it all figured out: They've been using business intelligence and data analytics for years to drive businesses. For schools, though, BI is in its infancy.

Last month, I attended one of Dell's Social Think Tanks . The topic was Innovation in Education and we had a great discussion on the role of technology in improving the education in America. The Think Tank was big on issues, but turning those issues into actions is overwhelming at best, given the institutionalized challenges that face schools today. As a follow up, Dell held a Google Hangout yesterday with some of the Think Tank participants so we could begin really thinking about concrete solutions. The Hangout recording is embedded below:

Not surprisingly, we had another great talk, but over and over it came up that our current system of high-stakes assessments is broken at best. They do little but penalize students, schools, and teachers and interfere with actual learning in extraordinary ways.

What bothers me most about this, though, is that the technology already exists to assess students' progress on an ongoing basis in a variety of ways, aggregate the data, and drive education in truly personalized and amazing ways. Look at the business intelligence and analytics that businesses apply every day to make decisions and course corrections: 

  • Walmart knows the items a store needs before its employees do and ships stock automatically
  • Credit card companies examine credit histories and card usage patterns to identify high-risk customers or those for whom risk is increasing
  • Data from online advertising (click-throughs, conversions, repeated visits, etc.) drive changes to marketing campaigns
  • Retailers target consumers with advertisements for products they are likely to buy based on past purchases
  • Manufacturers analyze supply chain and production data to improve processes and increase efficiencies
  • Insurance companies set rates based on shifting risk profiles built from a variety of data sources

This list could go on for pages. Mid-sized and large companies analyze gigabytes (and even terabytes) of data every week, making both automatic adjustments and providing information to leaders and stakeholders that enables informed strategic planning. Even small businesses regularly use analytic tools to adjust inventory, modify websites, target advertising dollars, and plan for new products.

We're beginning to see the emergence of BI in education - Three years ago, I wrote about an IBM system being used in Mobile, Alabamma, to identify, among other things, students at risk of dropout based on everything from grades to markers of socioeconomic status. But this hasn't managed to scale across states and districts. Too many schools remain focused on high-stakes tests as their sole means of evaluating student achievement. The introduction of student growth models (essentially comparing students to themselves, looking at how they, and the cohorts of which they are members, improve over time) has been an improvement over earlier cross-sectional analyses of NCLB testing data, but in most cases, it still hinges on those same summative assessments that students take every year.

In the same way, adaptive learning software and "Response to Intervention" approaches like those used by Lexia Learning's literacy products represent major steps forward in this area, giving teachers data in real time about individual students and providing scaffolding automatically based on student capabilities. Unfortunately, really useful data like those collected by Lexia, ST Math, and other similar platforms are rarely combined with other sources of student data in ways that would allow us to actually leverage all of the sophisticated BI technology we have at our disposal.

With robust student information systems, learning management systems, instructional software, and powerful data mining tools at our fingertips, "item analysis days" need to become a thing of the past. For those of you unfamiliar with item analysis days (or whatever term your schools or districts use to describe them), teachers in many schools wipe out entire days of professional development examining where last years' students performed poorly on state exams. Then they can shift their curricula to teach to the test better next year...I mean, errr, remap their curricula to better match state standards.

Click here to find out what our information systems should (and could) really be doing for us.

Topics: Big Data


Christopher Dawson grew up in Seattle, back in the days of pre-antitrust Microsoft, coffeeshops owned by something other than Starbucks, and really loud, inarticulate music. He escaped to the right coast in the early 90's and received a degree in Information Systems from Johns Hopkins University. While there, he began a career in health a... Full Bio

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