How Big Data Can Help Education

We are all born differently; different ways of thinking, different ways of observing, and different ways in which we learn about the world around us.

According to several studies, there are actually eight different ways in which people typically learn. There are linguistic learners who excel through reading, writing, listening or speaking; rhythmic learners who excel through music, melody or rhythm; kinesthetic learners who excel by actually doing what they are being taught; spatial learners who excel through visual aids; mathematical learners who excel by classifying, organizing and using numbers; interpersonal learners who excel by working with other people; and intrapersonal learners who excel when they work alone.

Beyond these differences in learning, our students face a number of other differences in and out of the classroom. Different family circumstances, different extracurriculars, different strategies for coping with stress and life in general. I think you get the point that the list of differences is endless.

So why is it then that when it comes to teaching, we standardize our education?

We sit students down in a classroom, organize them in neat rows ordered with the same desks, chairs and materials, and lecture them with the same type of information regardless of how they excel.

In some ways, the reason for standardization in education is pretty obvious actually. For one, the average student to teacher ratio in the United States is 16 to 1. In other words, for every teacher in a classroom there are 16 different individuals trying to learn. It’s not possible for every teacher to tailor their lessons specifically to every type of student they have; that just wouldn’t make any sense.

Another reason? The education system in the United States has been virtually the same since 1893 when the National Education Association appointed The Committee of Ten to standardize public education in order to prepare students for college. The curriculum hasn’t been changed much since then.

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So what’s the solution here? Hire more teachers? Reduce classroom size? Write individual lesson plans for each and every type of student?

No, no, and definitely no.

We believe the answer lies in personalized learning through technology. We are entering a new day in age where the feats of the tech world are incredible – Big data has become a very hot topic within tech, and more companies across the world are beginning to use it to get insight on a number of different key sectors ranging from financial trade to meteorology to public health. But what about education?

Believe it or not, I am not the first person to come up with the idea of using big data to improve our education system. In fact, it’s already been done – Many times.

In an article published by the Washington Post, Pasi Sahlberg, one of the world’s leading experts on school reform and educational practices, states, “One thing that distinguishes schools in the United States from schools around the world is how data walls, which typically reflect standardized test results, decorate hallways and teacher lounges.  Green, yellow, and red colors indicate levels of performance of students and classrooms. For serious reformers, this is the type of transparency that reveals more data about schools and is seen as part of the solution to how to conduct effective school improvement.”

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The United States has become obsessed with the wrong type of big data in education. Rather than focusing on data that tells us more about our students, we’ve been focusing on data that only tells us about our students’ performance on standardized testing. Sahlberg continues, “These data sets, however, often don’t spark insight about teaching and learning in classrooms; they are based on analytics and statistics, not on emotions and relationships that drive learning in schools.”

The result of focusing on test scores alone? “..there is now more data available than can reasonably be consumed and yet there has been no significant improvement in outcomes.”

The problem isn’t using big data to solve our education woes; the problem is using the wrong type of big data. Instead of focusing on just standardized test scores, we need to use big data to really learn about our students and teachers – Everything from their emotional intelligence to their goals to what they’re currently doing to try and get better results.

Once we can amass this type of data, we can use technology to better tailor learning on an individual level. We can analyze how different students best excel, and then give them better tools, lessons, and guidance to help them succeed both academically and with their goals in general. Integrate this with schools, and you have an education system that can much better meet the needs of every type of student.

If my opinion alone is not enough to convince you that personalized learning through technology and data is worth investing in as a country, maybe Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s’ opinion will be.

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In a recent phone interview with Education Week, Zuckerberg said, “We think that personalized learning makes sense. We want to see as many good versions of this idea as possible get tested in the world.” Last December Zuckerberg announced that him and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, would donate 99% of their Facebook shares (worth around 45 billion dollars) to a number of different causes, “headlined by the development of software ‘that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus.’”

If Zuckerberg and other leaders in education are betting big on personalized learning through technology, maybe it’s time we seriously consider it.


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