Some remain sceptical about the use of data and technology in the classroom, says Charlie Harrington, but there are many benefits to its application
Today, learning materials are shifting from print to digital and textbooks are becoming more dynamic — meaning that data about how students learn can be measured and analysed.
Education, by its very nature, produces huge amounts of data and we can use this data to provide teachers with a deeper understanding of precisely what a student knows and what he or she still needs to learn.
Furthermore, these measurements make it possible to provide every student with a constantly updating, personalised textbook, with exactly the exercises and information he or she needs to study in order to master the course material and get ahead. This is exciting because it means students come to class better prepared; fewer students fall behind.
A teacher can see exactly how well her students understood that tough lesson on meiosis at the beginning of the week. She can see that Jane needs extra help understanding cell biology, and can look at what percentage of her students are prepared for a forthcoming exam. A teacher can use this data to tailor class time and help students grasp tough concepts or further challenge an advanced student.
Despite these benefits, some remain sceptical about the use of data in education. It’s normal for fear to accompany the beginning of a new, and arguably ground-breaking movement. But as more schools and teachers implement data-based learning solutions, these fears will largely disappear.
Here are a few of the most common myths we hear about big data and education, and our take on the reality.
Myth: Education companies will sell student data.
Reality: Education companies have no incentive to sell student data.
We’re all used to consumer web companies like Google and Facebook offering free services in return for selling our data to ad companies. Search for “chocolate” on Google and you’ll be besieged by ads for Cadbury; change your Facebook status to “In a Relationship” and you’ll get ads for flower delivery.
Consumer web companies use targeted advertising because they have no other way to make money. This isn’t the case for education companies, who use subscription models for this reason.
Some are still concerned that ed tech providers might sell students’ data. This would be unacceptable and is extremely unlikely ever to happen. Any company that decided to sell student data would be immediately destroyed by the resulting public outcry. Student data is precious, and must be protected with the utmost care.
Myth: Data will make teachers obsolete.
Reality: Data will provide concrete information that helps teachers better serve students.
Teachers’ responsibilities go far beyond lesson planning and giving tests. There’s no way data will ever be able to replace teachers. Data is only additive. Think of how a doctor uses an X-ray to add concrete information to his hypothetical diagnosis.
Similarly, data can back up a teacher’s observations and intuition about student learning. Data can show exactly what areas students are struggling in most, or predict what grade a student would be likely to score on an exam if he took it that day. But data will never replace the experience, personal relationships, and cultural understanding that a teacher brings into the classroom.
Myth: Data will be used to judge teachers.
Reality: Direct observation will always be the best way to evaluate teacher performance.
Data, just like exam results, can provide insight into how well a class is performing. However, this is only one piece of the puzzle. It would be impossible to produce an algorithm for measuring teachers that is as effective as observing them directly.
Very little data is produced in the classroom itself. Rather, most data is generated outside of the classroom, while students are reading textbooks and doing practice questions. Data is most beneficial to help learn how students learn, create more personalised lessons, and build more effective textbooks.
Myth: Data dehumanises students.
Reality: Data promotes personalisation in education.
Sceptics claim that data will turn every student into nothing more than a number. This isn’t true. In fact, data can help teachers better understand every student. By identifying areas that students are struggling to master, teachers can prescribe a personalised course of action to help them overcome hurdles.
Charlie Harrington, director of business development at education technology company, Knewton