How big data can enable better education

Online learning has enabled universities to efficiently deliver quality education to more students than was formerly possible.

One of the side effects to having web-connected smartphones, tablets, laptops and possibly refrigerators is that they’re all collecting information about their users. Websites know which pages visitors go to and smartphones hold a trove of GPS data that would make even non-conspiracy theorists consider a tinfoil hat. But some organizations are putting that vast amount of information to good use.

The trend of collecting and analyzing vast amounts of data, known as “big data,” has raised more than a few eyebrows among privacy advocates. But a recent report from the Brookings Institution showed that such information can be incredibly valuable for the field of education.

Big data for better learning

The challenge for educators is that, in a classroom of 30 students, they’re likely to find 30 different styles and rates of learning. It can be quite the classroom management headache to try and keep track of where everyone is in terms of progress, especially considering how many courses the average instructor teaches. It would be impossible to modify an in-person lecture to account for every individual student’s needs, but technology can help deliver a customized level of education.

The report highlighted the value of online learning and integrating data analytics software to measure student progress and understanding. Now, instead of one instructor having to monitor 100 different students, a program can run all the grunt work and the teacher can identify areas in which a large number of students are struggling.

“Employment of this software allows teachers to mine learning patterns to see how students master chemistry, statistics, experimental designs, and key mathematical principles,” the report stated. “They do this through embedded assessment tools as well as pre- and post-test evaluation.”

The report also noted another area in which technology gives teachers the edge: It can provide immediate and actionable feedback. When students take tests on a computer, they immediately know how well they did and can work on improving while the information is still fresh in their minds. And educators can further enhance digital learning by creating tutorials and publishing them through an online learning platform. This enables students to cover more material if they need a deeper understanding of a subject, but doesn’t slow down learning for those further ahead.

What is learning analytics?

A recent infographic published by InformED highlighted several advantages of using what the company calls learning analytics.

“When you hear ‘analytics,’ you might think of webmasters tracking visits to their site (whether its e-commerce, a personal blog, or otherwise),” the infographic stated. “But learning analytics combines this sort of data analysis with student interaction in online education tools, aiming to create a more integrated and customized learning experience. It uses intelligent data, student performance and analysis models to find out how students learn and improve on their experience.”

It is important to remember that the technology isn’t designed to replace teachers, but rather to empower them. InformED highlighted several ways teachers can use learning analytics to improve classroom experiences, including:

• Tutorials and assessments delivered through software that allow every student to answer every question
• Teachers with analytics knowledge and tools can quickly identify common mistakes and create custom tutorials for better explaining those answers
• Analytics-based learning allows for self and peer grading, which enhances collaboration in the classroom
• Analytics software can be used to track and predict a particular student’s progress, so teachers can better identify who needs extra help

There are a few things that still need to be worked out, such as ensuring the security of sensitive student information and dealing with education compliance requirements. However, some educators have already taken the first step by offering an entire online learning platform. Coursera, for example, offers free online courses by respected universities, including Stanford and the University of Toronto. As The Atlantic noted in July, Coursera had 680,000 enrolled students and is “the single most important experiment in higher education.”

Have you taken an online course? Would you be willing to take a class that used a “learning analytics” approach?

Scott Cornell

When he’s not knee deep in blogging and all things tech, Scott spends his free time playing ultimate Frisbee and watching foreign films. An expert in emerging tech trends, Scott always has his ear to ground for breaking news related to IT security.