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Will big data make kids smarter?

From Big Data Innovation Summit 2015, Boston

I recently wrote a blog post about how big data is being leveraged in the public sector. But that is not where the use of big data analytics for the public good ends – today’s educators are teaming up with data scientists to determine how these analytics can be used to create tools to help students get more out of their education.

Unfortunately, at the moment, the field of education is “almost a data-free zone,” according to Henry Kelley, former chief scientist at the Energy Policy and Systems Analysis (EPSA), saying that the space is plagued by small sample sizes, flawed methods and a lack of testing methods that generate needed data.

But big data is making an entrance nonetheless. In one example, providers of massive open online course (MOOCs) are conducting massive analytics on student performance, creating what Stanford University calls a valuable data cauldron.

Likewise, the Kahn Academy, a non-profit, Web-based educational organization created in 2006, used data analytics in the form of A/B testing to determine what aspects of their curriculum were leading to higher learning results – and which ones actually created poor learning results. By looking at data collected they were able to determine that providing a “sneak peek” of certain programming courses actually discouraged students from moving on to the lecture, resulting in much lower engagement results – and learning outcomes – compared to the group that was not offered a preview.

In a final example, the renowned educational publisher McGraw Hill has been leveraging big data analytics in order to produce Connect Insights, a program that allows both students and teachers to track classroom performance as a function of time in an AWS-based application. Using a MongoDB database, they are able to store student’s grades, submission times, upcoming assignment and more in the form of JSON data and present that data in a simplified, easy-to-use format for the user. By providing this continuous feedback to students, the creators of this application believe it will help both students and teachers discover where students may be experiencing “gaps” in their performance and ultimately determine how to improve overall learning outcomes.

As exciting as the prospect is, however, there are still a number of hurdles that need to be overcome before big data can truly enable the next generation of learning. According to Kelley, these data-based programs run into familiar obstacles such as interoperability issues, formatting problems and challenges around using metadata. He also notes that the sheer complexity of education in the US and worldwide multiplies these challenges enormously – especially when trying to track the performance of students involved in complex tasks.

But there is one issue in particular that proves to be a major stumbling block for the proponents of big data in education: the privacy of the students themselves. Those familiar in the space may recall the establishment of inBloom, a $100 billion program sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation that was aimed towards creating a nationwide database that educators could upload data related to student performance in order to better track how certain schools and districts are performing (formerly known as the Shared Learning Collaborative). That program was shut down in 2014 after concerns over the sharing of student data led parents to believe that the privacy of their children was at risk.

Lawmakers are keeping a watchful eye on those attempting to use big data analytics in the field of education as well. In 2015, 46 states introduced a total of 182 bills regarding student privacy and 15 states passed a total of 28 data privacy laws. This is on top of the 110 bills introduced and 24 student privacy laws passed in 2014 – a whopping amount of legislation.

Hopefully educators, parents and lawmakers can finally come to an accord as to how big data can be safely leveraged in schools to improve the quality of education in the U.S. and beyond – until then testing of these capabilities will be left only to institutions such as privately-held universities. But that’s certainly not stopping data scientists from trying to create the tools they believe will usher a new generation of learning – and perhaps produce the smartest generation of students yet.

What impact do you foresee big data to have on education? Let us know with your comments.