Myths and reality in big data

Charlie Harrington, Co-Head of Knewton London, addresses some of the most common myths about the role of data in education

With contributions from Jose Ferreira, Knewton CEO and founder

Technology is revolutionising all aspects of life, so it is not surprising that it is starting to change the way we learn and teach as well. 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. Whilst it is well documented that technology can improve the administrative side of running a university, many don’t know that technology also has the potential to radically improve student learning.

Data-driven technology has tremendous potential to improve learning materials for today’s students. We can use data to understand what each student knows, how that individual learns best, and what lessons are most effective for various students. Education by its nature produces huge amounts of data; thanks to the extended amount of time students spend working with learning materials and the strong correlations between educational concepts, which generate cascade effects of insights.

Though it is clear benefits to using technology in this way, some remain sceptical about the use of data in education. 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.  

Companies like Google and Facebook offer free services in return for selling our data to ad companies often because they use targeted advertising to make a profit. This is a clear difference with education companies, who instead use alternative models to make money. If education companies ever decided to sell student data, they would be destroyed by the ensuing public outcry. Student data is precious, and must be protected.

Myth: Data will put instructors out of jobs.

Reality: Data will provide concrete information that will help professors better serve students.

A professor’s responsibilities go far beyond setting assignments and imparting knowledge. It’s just unrealistic to think that data could ever replace them. Data are a supplement or tool — similar to how a doctor uses X-rays to assess a patient. They can empower instructors, showing them exactly what areas students are struggling in most to help tailor instruction.

Myth: Data will be used to judge or fire lecturers.   

Reality: Direct observation will always be the best way to evaluate performance.

Like exam results, data can provide insight into how well a set of students are performing. However, this is only one piece of the puzzle. It would be impossible to produce an algorithm for measuring lecturers that is as effective as observing them directly. Indeed most data is generated outside of the classroom, while students are studying.

Myth: Data dehumanises students.

Reality: Data promotes personalisation in education.    

Rather than dehumanising students, data can in fact help tutors and lecturers get a better understanding of students’ unique needs. Despite scarce resources, universities are under increasing pressure to provide a superior educational experience. Adaptive learning technology can be an effective tool in making students feel supported and helping teachers better understand what each student needs to succeed.

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